New Stonehenge visitor centre opens to public

Prehistoric objects and the reconstructed face of a Neolithic man are among the items on display at a new Stonehenge visitor centre, which opened to the public today.

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Prehistoric objects and the reconstructed face of a Neolithic man are among the items on display at a new Stonehenge visitor centre, which opened to the public today.

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Built to give visitors “a sense of the people who built this monument, of their lives, their deaths and their ceremonies”, said the chief executive at English Heritage, the centre features an exhibition telling the story of the changing understanding of Stonehenge over centuries.

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The exhibition displays objects never before seen together, including two rare 14th-century manuscripts that are among the earliest known drawings of the monument; Roman coins and jewellery, and early surveying equipment.

A 360-degree virtual experience will allow visitors to ‘stand in the stones’ before they enter the gallery. A three-minute film, based on state-of-the-art laser scan images of the stone circle, will enable visitors to experience the summer and winter solstices.

One of the highlights of the new exhibition is a reconstruction of an early Neolithic man’s face. Built using forensic evidence derived from skeletal analysis, the face is of a man aged 25–40, of slender build, born about 5,500 years ago.

The reconstructed head is based on the skeleton of an adult male, which was excavated in 1863 from a long barrow at Winterbourne Stoke, Wiltshire. The skeleton had been stored at in the Duckworth Laboratory at Cambridge University before it was loaned to English Heritage for the new exhibition.

The skeleton is shown upright in the display, with the reconstructed head beside him.

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Stonehenge began as a simple earthwork enclosure, and was built in several stages. The unique lintelled stone circle was erected in the late Neolithic period around 2500 BC.

Stonehenge remained important into the early Bronze Age, when many burial mounds were built nearby.

Dr Simon Thurley, chief executive at English Heritage, said: “Visitors will, for the first time, learn the astonishing history of the stones and will see objects, many never seen before, that will bring the stones to life.

“Instead of just a stopover or a quick photo opportunity, we want our visitors to step back in time and into the shoes of those who created and used this extraordinary place, to marvel at original everyday objects they used, to walk the surrounding landscape as they did, and to sit in the dwellings that they would have built. It makes the real encounter with the stones themselves so much more exciting.”

Culture secretary, Maria Miller, said: “Stonehenge is one of the UK’s most iconic sites, undeniably worthy of its UNESCO World Heritage status attracting one million tourists every year from the UK and all over the world.

“So it’s only right that, after decades of indecision, we can now offer them the visitor experience and exhibition centre they deserve. A huge amount of work has gone into getting this right and making sure people can see the stones and their story in a whole new light.”

To find out more about the new visitor centre, click here.

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In our Christmas issue, Mike Pitts reveals how different eras have viewed the prehistoric monument – from the Anglo-Saxons and Romans, to the Victorians and modern day visitors. Our Christmas issue is on sale now.