December 17, 2013
The ancient road to Stonehenge has returned, along with an out-of-sight gleaming new visitor center, open in time for the winter solstice.
The collection of massive stones on the Salisbury plain 80 miles from London has long held a fascination for archaeologists and tourists alike. What was its purpose? Was it a burial ground? Was it a place of worship or a place of healing (or both)? Was it a center for astronomical viewing? Was it all these or none? No one yet knows for sure, which is part of the allure.
An older collection of buildings, including a visitor center and a small cafe, are now closed, as in the nearby highway, which ran very close to the giant stones and carried thousands of cars every day. In fact, grass now covers the asphalt, making possible a 1.5-mile stroll to the monuments from the new state-of-the-art visitor center. (A shuttle service is also available.)
Highlights for tourists of the new visitor center are a 360-degree virtual tour of the monuments and a large exhibition about the Neolithic Britons who transported the massive stones from Wales, up to 175 miles away, beginning 5,000 years ago and carrying on for 1,400 years.
The exhibit includes a replica of what archaeologists think that these Neolithic Britons looked like, based on a recently discovered skeleton buried nearby. The exhibit emphasizes the sophistication of these ancient people, including their farming techniques and their domestication of animals, and features more than 250 artifacts, most previously unavailable for public viewing.
Parts of the exhibit as well will be rare medieval manuscripts mentioning the monuments and even Roman coins and jewelry from the area.
The visitor center itself is sure to be described as iconic. The building has two sections, one of timber and one of glass, and is designed to blend in with the landscape. The roof is supported by more than 200 svelte steel poles, which resemble trees.
To pay for the $44 milllion renovation, officials raised money from donors and from the national lottery. Admission costs, nearly doubled to $24 per adult, will help pay back costs as well, as will many tempting items at the giant new gift shop.