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It was not just archaeologists who will have experienced a profound sense of shock and anger on seeing two activists from the environmental protest group Just Stop Oil spray what appeared to be paint over three of the iconic sarsen stones at the centre of Stonehenge.

Responding to the protest both Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour Leader and former Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Keir Starmer called for the full force of the law to be directed at the perpetrators and many others in the media and public followed this zero tolerance line, including many archaeologists. Indeed some commentators even likened the protest to the activities of ISIS [the so called Islamic State] at the World Heritage Site of Palmyra and in the museums and historic sites of Syria and Iraq. However, within hours of news of the protest breaking and the images of orange pigment being sprayed on the monument going viral the debate became more nuanced, with suggestions that once again the monument on Salisbury Plain had become co-opted as the focus for a justifiable debate.

Even archaeologists soon pointed out that while undesirable, even possibly reckless, and essentially stupid as the action served to alienate a constituency who might otherwise be
sympathetic to their cause, environmentally conscious archaeologists, the action by Just Stop Oil was nothing like the actions of the so called Islamic State or ISIS, which used high explosives, JCB’s and jack hammers in its attacks on Palmyra and on irreplaceable stone artefacts. ISIS even murdered archaeologists, among many other victims of its ultra violent attempt to erase history which was inconvenient to its belief system, while the worst Just Stop Oil had done was possibly threaten patches of rare lichen, although even that possibility was soon questioned.

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As the discussion developed Archaeologist Stephen Fisher took to X-Twitter to offer further perspective on the issue in a thread on the potential impact of human actions on
the #Stonehenge stones, even within living memory, including the stones being daubed with the CND slogan “Ban the Bomb” and the use of cranes and chains by the Ministry of Works to reposition some of the same sarsen stones which were daubed with pigment by the protestors, arguably causing them more danger and potential damage.

Other commentators are pointed out a perceived double standard in that the Just Stop Oil protest at #Stonehenge had elicited more anger and demands for legal action to be taken against the alleged perpetrators on the part of politicians and some archaeologists, than the documented destruction of heritage sites and deaths of heritage workers and their families in Gaza, both of which might be war crimes under Geneva and Hague Conventions.

Meanwhile, respected archaeologist and finds specialist Paul Blinkhorn alleged that daily archaeologists employed inadequate sampling strategies on commercial archaeological sites resulting in far more serious and lasting damage to our shared past than spray
painting some stones at #Stonehenge with a water based product.

Perhaps the reaction to the Just Stop Oil protest at #Stonehenge and the debate it provoked was merely reaffirming the place of the monument in our national consciousness, culture and psychodrama?

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Meanwhile the following day on his morning LBC phone in show host James O’Brien quoted one of his callers who suggested that #Stonehenge may have “reached its tendrils
into our national psyche”.

With a perspective on the archaeology of the Neolithic and Bronze Age unusual in a journalist, O’Brien suggested also that other stone circles could be more significant, adding that one reason for the monuments fame was its sheer visibility in the landscape just off the A303, the gateway to the west country.

Of course, if the A303 upgrade is finally built by National Highways the monument will no longer be visible as the road will be buried in a tunnel as part of a project criticised heavily as damaging to the environment on account of the carbon generated during construction and as an outdated promotion of fossil fuelled transport.

Few made that connection in the discussion of the protest, not even Just Stop Oil itself, who, it might be imagined, would have done had they thought through their pigmented protest in the round.

To make an analogy with the Euro’s football championship currently underway in Germany, it is as though Just Stop Oil skied the ball in front of an open goal having
just been yellow carded for a professional foul, which was shown repeatedly, from multiple angles, in the TV coverage.

That said, the demands for action and the full might of the law to be brought down upon the Just Stop Oil activists might  not be the free shot critics of Just Stop Oil seem to want.

While the daubing of the stones is undoubtedly a heritage crime in the strict sense of the term, law enforcement and lawyers, will be asking what is the actual impact
of the “crime”? Particularly when the morning following the protest English Heritage issued a press release which reassured the public that,

“Thankfully, there appears to be no visible damage but that’s in no way saying there hasn’t been harm, from the very act of having to clean the stones to the distress caused to those for whom Stonehenge holds a spiritual significance.”

Indeed, the annual celebration of the Summer Solstice proceeded as planned without further problems.

Providing context to the cries for legal action, just two days after the protest at Stonehenge analysis was published which showed that in spite of 3,122 arrests at Just Stop Oil
protest actions just four of the organisations activists have been given prison sentences and prosecutors will be acutely aware of the damage to the cause of the rule of law if a jury were to acquit defendant’s in such “conscience” cases. Something which they can and have done in the past, even in defiance of legal direction and the strict letter of the Law, not least in the case of the acquittal of the Colston Four. The activists in Bristol who did far more damage to a Listed Monument than their Just Stop Oil counterparts appear to have caused to the Stonehenge Sarsens and yet were acquitted by a jury to the fury of the then Home Secretary Suella Braverman.

That Just Stop Oil see the protest at Stonehenge in such terms is clear.

The organisation published a press release in the immediate aftermath of the protest quoting one of the activists involved, Niamh Lynch, 21, a Student from
Oxford, who said:

“Stonehenge at solstice is all about celebrating the natural world – but look at the state it’s in!
We all have a right to live a life free from suffering, but continued burning of oil, coal and gas is leading to death and suffering on an unparalleled scale.”

She added,

“It’s time for us to think about what our civilization will leave behind – what is our legacy?

Standing inert for generations works well for stones – not climate policy.”

However, the legal position is controversial.

Asked, in the wake of the acquittal of the Colston four, to adjudicate on a point of Law regarding a potential defence under the Human Rights Convention clause
regarding the freedom to speak and protest the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, said:

“We have concluded that prosecution and conviction for causing significant damage to property during protest would fall outside the protection of the convention, either because the conduct in question was violent or not peaceful, alternatively (even if theoretically peaceful) prosecution and conviction would clearly be proportionate.”

However, Burnett, commenting on behalf of the three judges who heard the case, said that were the criminal damage “minor or temporary”, the proportionality of conviction would have to be considered by the court. The justices expected such prosecutions would not be brought because they “would be a disproportionate reaction to the conduct in question”.

“Minor” and “temporary” appear to be precisely the meaning of a number of the terms used by English Heritage to describe the consequence of the Just Stop Oil protest in its press release.

Regardless of what may, or may not happen in the courts, with pagans on O’Brian’s phone in likening the spray painting of stones to a graffiti attack on a church or mosque, the programme concluded broadly the attack by Just Stop Oil was a serious mistake in public relations terms in spite of the spectacle of the colour daubed stones cutting through across the media.

Many, even those who support the aim of ending the global reliance on fossil fuels will agree with that verdict.

And perhaps once again the ultimately unknowable original meaning of Stonehenge to the community which built it, has been replaced by yet another projection of our
own contemporary concerns.

Stonehenge is a blank page in a book of time upon which ultimately we always write ourselves into the story.



Just as this story was about to be published Agence France-Presse reported that the United Nations Education and Scientific Organisation {UNESCO], which administers the international list of World Heritage Sites is proposing that the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site be placed on the list of World Heritage Sites in danger on account of the UK Governments plan to build the so called A303 short tunnel and dual carriage way upgrade across the site.

While not a surprise, UNESCO has consistently opposed the, so called, short tunnel option, were it to pass, which is considered likely, the vote, which could come as early as July, is bound to be an embarrassment to the new UK Government, not to mention the archaeologists who have supported the A303 Tunnel project.

At the time of writing the road proposal is held up by legal proceedings which might yet find the project unlawful and the £2 billion project could also fall victim to budget cuts whoever wins the General Election on 4 July.

However, given miles of concrete and black top sunk in deep cuttings cannot be washed away in a few hours like a cornflower based pigment, for now it remains the case that,
while archaeologists undertaking legally sanctioned developer funded work on the A303 Stonehenge project cannot be regarded as vandals, according to UNESCO at least, the Government and its agency National Highways, which is paying them, might come to be seen as such.





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thePipeLine is an independent news publication that investigates the place that heritage, politics, and money meet.


  1. There is no convoluted issues or deep meanings involved in the act of spraying paint on a well known universally recognized ancient stone circle. It is a slap in the face of those who value the monument. It is an insult to a society that the painters believe should alter its environmental policies. It is not the same as a vote and it should be treated as a crime.

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