Page last updated at 13:35 GMT, Thursday, 22 May 2008 14:35 UK

Chisels once given at Stonehenge

Summer Solstice 2007

At one time, chisels would be handed to people visiting Stonehenge, so they could chip away at the ancient monument to get their own souvenirs.

But the practice has been outlawed since 1900, when landowner Sir Edmund Antrobus decided the site needed protecting and introduced charges.

Before then, anyone who visited the site could walk freely among the ancient stones.

Now, the stones are fenced off, with private access allowed only by special arrangement.

English Heritage said an attack on the revered stones on Thursday, during which a piece of the Heel Stone was chipped off with a hammer and screwdriver, was believed to be the first of its kind in many years.

Nearly 1m visitors a year flock to the 5,000-year-old World Heritage Site.

Thousands of visitors also flock there for traditional pagan festivals, the summer and winter solstice and spring and autumn equinox.

For 15 years, until the summer solstice in 2000, the Wiltshire site was protected by a four-mile exclusion order, following a series of public order problems.

Lifting the ban, English Heritage appealed to solstice visitors to remain peaceful and respectful during their visit, and the event - and subsequent events - passed largely trouble free.

In December 2006, winter solstice visitors were left red faced after turning up for the celebrations on the wrong day.

The 60-strong crowd were allowed into the site by English Heritage despite arriving a day early, but were advised to always check the date in future.

Stonehenge (BBC)
Chisels were once handed out to Stonehenge visitors

One reveller said: "There were an awful lot of red faces."

Though a spokeswoman for English Heritage said the organisation could not remember a recent incident of vandalism at the site, it did become the focus of a protest in 2007.

Three men from the group Fathers 4 Justice, dressed as cartoon characters from the Flintstones, scaled the monument and unveiled a banner.

English Heritage said it was disappointed with the protestors and felt the demonstration not only disrespected the stones, but could damage them.

The men were arrested by Wiltshire Police on their descent, and two of them later fined.

Stonehenge was bought by its last private owner, Sir Cecil Chubb, for 6,600 in 1915.

He presented it as a gift to the nation in 1918.

The site was substantially restored in the early 20th Century, when stones which had started to fall over were straightened and set in concrete.

More recently, the site, which was originally built in three stages of construction requiring more than 30 million hours of labour, has been the focus of attention from archaeologists, rather than engineers. A 2008 excavation - the first in four decades - aimed to try to establish some precise dating for the creation of the monument.

In April, archaeologists said they had broken through to a layer which could finally explain why the site was built.

Their findings are expected to be made public in the autumn.

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