Friday, June 18, 1999 Published at 12:36 GMT 13:36 UK
Ancient stones daubed with paint
Avebury 'surpasses' Stonehenge in archaeological terms
Two of the ancient standing stones at the Avebury World Heritage site in Wiltshire have been damaged by vandals in what may have been a protest against genetically-modified (GM) crops.
Historian Professor Ronald Hutton said the attack was "appalling" and was akin to desecrating a church on Good Friday.
The stones were painted red, green and white by a gang who struck in the early hours of Friday morning.
An anonymous caller to the BBC in Manchester said the attack was undertaken as a protest against GM foods. He said the stones were painted red to represent giant "freak" tomatoes.
Wiltshire police spokeswoman Elizabeth Marginson said the force received a call from a member of the public who noticed the vandalism at 0440 BST.
Ms Marginson said the National Trust, who were responsible for the site, and the police were working together to get to the bottom of the case.
A National Trust spokeswoman said the two stones in question had been "wrapped" to prevent further damage.
GM crop trial aborted
It is thought Avebury may have been targeted because of the proximity of the site to the first farm-scale trial of GM crops.
Captain Fred Barker said he had been keen to examine the possibilities of GM crops but his trustees were opposed to the government-run trials and were unhappy that other crops on the farm were to lose their organic status because of the trial.
The 26-acre crop of GM rapeseed was planted at Easter. The company which developed the GM crop seeds, AgrEvo, said it was "deeply disappointed" at the trial being aborted.
Prof Hutton, a professor of history at Bristol University, said Avebury was a site of huge historical and scientific interest.
'Cathedral for pagans'
He told BBC News Online: "It was once said that it surpasses Stonehenge like a cathedral surpasses a parish church."
Prof Hutton said the protesters had no doubt targeted the site because it would be high profile with the coming of the solstice. But he said: "They have damaged part of our history while demonstrating about our future, which is crazy."
Two years ago strange symbols were painted on the stones by vandals.
Prof Hutton said removing the paint would be costly and would damage lichens on the stones which were of great biological interest.
He said Avebury, which is situated in the middle of a village, was a large site which was more difficult to fence off than Stonehenge.
"Fencing off the site would be impractical and tragic," he said. Avebury stone circle is more than 4,000 years old and was built between 2,600 and 2100 BC.