When the longest awaited visitor centre in the history of heritage tourism finally opens its doors on Wednesday, people will come face to face with a tall, slim man who has been at Stonehenge for a very long time.
He arrived long before a century of arguing about what and where the visitor centre should be, before the endless planning enquiries about burying, closing or rerouting the roads, before designs created were scrapped, funding plans were announced and abandoned. He arrived before a procession of English Heritage bosses who vowed that on their watch the “national disgrace” – as a parliamentary committee described it in 1989 – of visitor facilities at one of the most famous prehistoric monuments in the world would finally be solved.
He came to Stonehenge before the stones themselves. He was buried under a nearby long barrow about 5,500 years ago, proving that the Wiltshire downland was already a special place at least 500 years before the first circular chalk ditch was dug out with deer antler picks, creating the circular enclosure in which the iconic stones would later be erected.
His skeleton, with a reconstruction of his face based on the skull, now stands in the new visitor centre, along with jewellery and pottery beakers, butchered animal bones from midwinter feasts, a pig’s vertebra still pierced with the hunter’s arrow, a flint knife and a bronze axe – the first time the evidence for the lives of the people who built the monument and lived nearby has ever been displayed at the site.
Simon Thurley has only been chief executive of English Heritage for the past 11 years, but he admitted the problem of what to do about Stonehenge has occupied many of his waking hours.
“I think this building is elegant, beautiful, and above all fit for purpose,” he said. “I think it is a great work of art. But amazingly, it is also reversible: if somebody thinks we got it all wrong in 30 years, it could be dug up, taken away and rebuilt somewhere else, or crunched up and sold off as scrap – and the field would be again as it was.”
The new visitor centre is a determinedly meek and retiring grey glass, steel and timber structure 1.5 miles (2.4km) west of and invisible from the stones – and barely visible from a few hundred yards away. Designed by Denton Corker Marshall, it supplies a cafe, ticket office, shop, car and bus park, exhibition on the history of the site and museum displaying priceless loans, including the earliest manuscripts depicting the stones. It cost £27m: the many elaborate schemes drawn up, lavishly launched and then abandoned, along with serial planning and roads enquiries, have cost many times that.
Visitors will be collected by Land Rovers drawing surprisingly elegant little carriages – English Heritage staff have been using them as quiet, comfortable meeting rooms to escape the building site – and taken to the stones. Visitors are expected to rise from around 1 million to 1.25 million in the first year of the new centre, and in high season a shuttle should be heading down the road every four minutes. Pre-booking online is not only advised – and will also slightly reduce the £14.90 admission fee, almost twice the current £8 charge – but will be essential at peak times.
The shuttles will stop halfway at a little wood – one of the myriad abandoned alternative sites for the centre – offering visitors the option of walking across fields to the monument, or continuing on to be dropped a short stroll from the stones. Although English Heritage cares for the monument, thousands of surrounding acres belong to the National Trust, and new signboards are being installed in the fields explaining the barrows, avenues and mounds which speckle the landscape.
The hideous high security fence has already gone, and the returfed route of the old A344, which brought traffic within a few feet of the stones, is already greening up. However, after much discussion and to the inevitable disappointment of visitors seduced by romantic artists’ impressions of families ambling across open downland towards the stones, the centre of the circle will still be closed off, except to specially booked groups outside normal opening hours.
Months of landscaping are still to come, but gradually the old underpass, car park, the sinister underground loos which regularly flooded, and the sales kiosks will be demolished.
English Heritage expects the time people spend at the site to rise from the present half an hour – or less – to at least two hours, and negotiations are continuing to persuade the tour bus operators who bring thousands of tourists to the site to rearrange their schedules.
The new displays include a 360-degree projection, based on a minutely detailed laser scan of the stones, which catapult visitors through millennia and seasons, from sunrise to snowfall, lark song to traffic noise.
The permanent exhibition includes many objects found at the site never exhibited before, and loans from the museums in Salisbury and Devizes. Devizes has also already opened a new prehistoric gallery, with finds including the gold from the richest burial in the area, and Salisbury will open a new gallery next year.
The most spectacular single object is the skeleton, excavated in 1863 from a long barrow burial mound at Winterbourne Stoke, displayed beside the face recreated by Oscar Nilsson, who also helps the Swedish police identify murder victims.
“Isn’t he gorgeous?” archaeologist Sara Lunt, who curated the exhibition, said. “The skull is very fine, suggesting he was a handsome young man, and I was determined that the reconstruction should show that. Obviously when the hair and colouring was added he could have been made to look like some horrible shaggy caveman dragging his knuckles along the ground, but instead there is a delicacy, a fineness to him – when he was still bald, before the hair was added, he looked like any commuter you’d meet on a train into London.”
He was a sad specimen when Lunt first saw him in the stores of the Duckworth laboratory at Cambridge University, missing his feet, hands, forearms, and head. Gradually most of the missing bones were tracked down, and finally the skull was found mistakenly stored among bones from Pompeii, but still scribbled with notes by the original excavator, amateur archaeologist Dr John Thurnham. Analysis of the bones, and the radioactive isotopes of his splendid teeth, show that he came from the southwest, from south Wales, Cornwall, or possibly Brittany.
“Tests also show that he moved on and off the chalkland several times – perhaps he was going back to see his mother? But something kept drawing him to return to this place,” Lunt said. “We can’t know how, but it was special to him.”
Stonehenge: a timeline
8500 to 7000BC: massive timber posts are earliest human constructions on the site
3500BC: long barrow burial mounds
3000BC: circle of earth banks and ditches
2500 to 2300BC: repeated rearrangement of sarsen stones from Salisbury plain, and smaller bluestones from the Preseli hills in Wales: huge outer circle of uprights and lintels gives the monument its world famous profile
1968: “temporary” visitor centre, with snack bar, lavatories and shop in pre-fab huts
1986: Stonehenge declared Unesco World Heritage Site
1989: parliamentary public accounts committee damns the visitor facilities and interpretation at Stonehenge as “a national disgrace”
2007: Labour government scraps £540m road tunnel under Stonehenge on cost grounds; English Heritage scraps visitor centre.
2008: Lord Bruce-Lockhart, chair of English Heritage, says “it is inconceivable that the inadequacies of the site should be allowed to continue any longer”
June 2010: Coalition scraps £10m grant for the new visitor centre, Heritage Lottery Fund gives £10m
June 2013: A344 closed where it passes within yards of the stones
December 2013: £27m visitor centre, designed by Denton Corker Marshall, opens at Airman’s Corner, 1.5 miles west of the stones
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk