Summary: Huge, complex and beautiful patterns are being found swirled into crop fields around the world every year. Their origin and purpose remains a complete mystery. Despite attempts to dismiss them as the work of human artists, some believe the evidence points to a much stranger explanation. Wherever they come from, these spectacular designs often display very clear symbolism, scientific, esoteric and astronomical, and demonstrate some extraordinary unexplained effects.
Huge, complex and beautiful patterns are being found swirled into crop fields around the world every year. Their origin and purpose remains a complete mystery. Despite attempts to dismiss them as the work of human artists, some believe the evidence points to a much stranger explanation. Wherever they come from, these spectacular designs often display very clear symbolism, scientific, esoteric and astronomical, and demonstrate some extraordinary unexplained effects.
How many appear?
Around 250 crop designs around the world appear each year on average. Figures vary slightly from year to year, up and down. Several thousand have been documented since records began.
Where do they appear?
Crop circles are a global phenomenon, but predominantly appear in the Northern Hemisphere, with southern England as the main centre of activity, particularly Wiltshire. England has played host to around two-thirds of the recorded formations so far, but places as diverse as Germany, Canada, North America, The Netherlands, The Czech Republic and Russia, to name but a few, have also recorded many appearances.
When do they arrive?
Off-season formations do sometimes occur, but by and large they begin to appear from spring onwards until early autumn, with most arriving during the three main summer months of any given country.
What crops do they appear in?
Any crop can be a potential target for the phenomenon: wheat, barley and oilseed rape (canola) are the most common in England, being the main varieties grown, but they have also been reported in rye, oats, flax, peas, potatoes, sweetcorn maize and many other mediums, including rice paddies in Japan. Formations have also been found in wild grass, bracken and other undergrowth-type plants.
How large are crop circles?
Size can vary from circles of just a foot or so across ('grapeshot'), to designs covering many hundreds of feet.
A Brief History of Crop Circles
When two retired English pranksters, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, claimed in 1991 to have invented the crop circle phenomenon as a joke a decade or so earlier, they couldn't have been aware that almost 300 documented formations predated their alleged exploits. Reports go back centuries and a seventeenth century illustration even shows the figure of the Devil creating what certainly looks like the type of marking in fields which began to attract serious attention from the 1980s onwards.
Swirled into growing crops, these circular indentations of carefully flattened stems looked at first like the result of freak whirlwinds. Some were a few feet across, but others were the size of tennis courts. It wasn't long before the appearance of symmetrical patterns and other unusual variations began to throw the weather theories into doubt.
By the late 1980s, rapidly increasing numbers and seemingly evolving designs, still based largely on circles, had begun to capture the public imagination. Tantalised by reports of glowing lights and other bizarre phenomena associated with the circles, everyone from UFO buffs to eminent scientists was trying to unravel the mystery.
In 1990, the arrival of 'pictograms', long symbolic chains of circles, rectangles and rings gave the crop circles their place in history. Newspapers and television channels eagerly reported these astonishing patterns. But the claims of Doug and Dave and other supposed hoaxers soon left the media disillusioned.
Despite this, crop formations continue to be discovered in designs of growing sophistication and size which leave many convinced that there is an unexplained force at work.
Theories and Evidence
There has been intense debate over the circles' origins. Some believe they are communications from extra-terrestrials, pointing to the many sightings and videos of aerial phenomena seen in connection with crop formations. Others feel the lights may be the properties of an unknown natural energy which produces complex ground patterns. Others still have cited everything from Mother Earth to nature spirits being responsible. Experiments with the power of the mind have suggested it is possible to influence the creation of certain shapes, leading some to believe psychic forces are involved.
Beyond this, most other popular explanations for the crop circles have revolved around human activity, either involving satellite technology or, more usually, the simple actions of pranksters and landscape artists. However, in demonstrations, human teams have struggled to reproduce designs as geometrically complex as many seen in the fields or have taken long hours to produce anything approaching them. Certain formations have been shown to have appeared within very short periods of time and the geometrical calculation and construction required for some simply could not be carried out in one night. Biological anomalies and unreproducable effects such as nodal bending (where the 'knuckles' on stems are bent at strange angles to effect certain shapes in the lay) are always absent from man-made designs.
Some of the patterns have shown breathtaking symbolic qualities. In 1994, for instance, several galaxy-shaped glyphs displayed a conjunction of planets over the star constellation Cetus as it would be in April 2000, and in 1995 an accurate diagram of the Earth's inner solar system was discovered. However, despite these few shapes which appear to denote dates and astronomical conjunctions, most others remain obscure and are open to interpretation, seeming to reflect multi-cultural symbolism.
Work by laboratories on circle-affected crop has shown biological changes taking place at a cellular level, suggesting the involvement of microwave energy. Other physical tests have shown anomalies not yet replicated by man-made experiments. These, together with the lights, eye-witness accounts, reports of malfunctioning electronic equipment and health effects on people visiting circles, suggest the phenomenon should be looked at far more closely.
Whether the crop formations are warnings, messages of greeting or abstract doodles remains to be seen. As they amaze and frustrate in equal measure with their stunning beauty, no doubt they will continue to create further controversy. Even within the crop circle research community itself, there has been much intense debate, disagreement and division - but also much positivity and inspiration, sparked by the deep questions raised and by the simple influence of beauty in people's lives.
Circular Stories, Facts and Figures
Eye-witnesses: There are around two dozen eye-witness accounts of crop circles forming. All describe similar events; an invisible force coming out of nowhere in otherwise calm conditions and spinning the crops down within seconds, usually with surprising violence - yet little damage is found in the laid crop. Tornado-like funnels, light phenomena and high-pitched whistling sounds have also been reported.
Quick on the draw: In July 1996, a 915 feet spiral of 151 circles appeared in full view of the busy A303 road, opposite England's ancient monument Stonehenge, Wiltshire, within a 45 minute period one Sunday afternoon. A pilot, gamekeeper and security guard confirmed it had not been there before 5.30pm - yet shortly after 6.00pm, the massive formation was being spotted by passing tourists. Much smaller man-made designs have taken several hours to complete. This also disproves the myth that all crop circles appear by night.
Longest crop formation: This occurred at Etchilhampton, Wiltshire, in 1996 - a chain of circles and pathways approximately 4100 feet long crossed from one end of a field to another.
Largest design and most circles in one formation: The record for both these qualities is currently held by the huge motif at Milk Hill, Wiltshire, August 12th 2001 - 409 small circles made up a staggering six-armed design of around 800 feet diameter.
Largest expanse of laid crop in one design: A seven-petalled mandala which appeared at Alton Barnes, Wiltshire, in 1998 contained an unbroken flattened area covering 6000 square metres.
Most geometrically perfect formation: Most would agree that the formation at Windmill Hill, Wiltshire, in 1996 takes this award - an endless procession of perfect equilateral triangles, from large to small, could be drawn by overlaying geometrical shapes onto a triple-armed spiral of 194 circles covering around an area of 600 feet diameter. If just one of the main circles or arms had been even slightly misplaced, this geometry would not have worked.
Most visited formation: Stonehenge, 1996 (see Quick on the Draw above) - it is estimated around 10,000 people entered this pattern once it was opened to the public by the farmer, partly through being so visible next to such a major landmark.
Most publicised formation: Alton Barnes, 1990 - many global newspapers and TV stations reported the appearance of this, the first of the large pictograms.
Scientific tests: Work by W C Levengood, a respected Michigan-based biophysicist, has shown notable biological changes taking place inside circle-laid stalks, which could be attributable to some kind of microwave energy. No man-made demonstration formation has ever produced these results, yet the majority of the hundreds of crop circles sampled have proved positive in this regard. LevengoodÕs papers have been published in scientific journals and his work has been replicated by other laboratories working with the US-based BLT Research organisation. In 1995, tests on crop formation soil samples were conducted by ADAS, a division of the English Ministry of Agriculture. Although preliminary, they showed distinct anomalies in the nitrogen/nitrate ratios which could not be explained. There have been other scientific tests carried out by different bodies over the years which have produced peculiar unexplained qualities.
Strange effects: There have been many reported effects on people's health, sometimes of cures, sometimes of ailments, which have come on while within crop circles. Animals sometimes behave strangely in crop formations. Electronic and mechanical equipment, videos, cameras and even combine harvesters have also been known to malfunction in very odd ways, far above the average one would expect from chance.
As yet, there is a resistance to mass acceptance of the crop formations as anything other than a man-made joke, despite all the evidence pointing in another direction for at least a proportion of the glyphs. To accept that crop circles come from beyond physical human realms means reassessing many things accepted as 'normality'. It means taking seriously the big question of what or who is making the patterns. Some believe we already have enough evidence to have reached that point, but the general public seems happier to treat the phenomenon as harmless art. Those who make our rules for us also seem to prefer it that way. Many others feel, however, that the circles are heralds of some major changes for our planet and civilisation, marking either a tumultuous era of upheaval or some kind of spiritual renaissance.
Whatever the truth, there is no doubt the crop circles have left an indelible mark upon our culture, inspiring with their visual beauty and mystery, and have profoundly affected many people's lives...