Crop circles are patterns created by the flattening of crops such as wheat, barley, rapeseed (also called "canola"), rye, corn, linseed and soy. The term was first used by researcher Colin Andrews to describe simple circles he was researching. Although since 1990 the circles have evolved into complex geometries, the term "circle" has stuck. Various hypotheses have been offered to explain their formation, ranging from the naturalistic to the paranormal. Naturalistic explanations include man-made hoaxes or geological anomalies, while paranormal explanations include formation by UFOs. Many circles are known to be man-made, such as those created by Doug Bower, Dave Chorley, and John Lundberg, and a 2000 study into circle hoaxing concluded that 80 percent of UK circles were definitely man-made.
Bower and Chorley were awarded an Ig Nobel Prize in 1992 for their crop circle hoaxing.
The earliest recorded image resembling a crop circle is depicted in a 17th century English woodcut called the Mowing-Devil. The image depicts the Devil with a scythe mowing (cutting) a circular design in a field of oats. The pamphlet containing the image states that the farmer, disgusted at the wage his mower was demanding for his work, insisted that he would rather have "the devil himself" perform the task.
A more recent historical report of crop circles was republished (from Nature, volume 22, pp 290-291, 29 July 1880) in the January 2000 issue of the Journal of Meteorology. It describes the 1880 investigations by amateur scientist John Rand Capron:
In 1966, one of the most famous accounts of UFO traces happened in the small town of Tully, Queensland, Australia. A sugar cane farmer said he witnessed a saucer-shaped craft rise 30 or 40 feet up from a swamp and then fly away, and when he went to investigate the location where he thought the saucer had landed, he found the reeds intricately weaved in a clockwise fashion on top of the water. The woven reeds could hold the weight of 10 men.
There are also many other anecdotal accounts of crop circles in Ufology literature that predate the modern crop circle phenomena, though some cases involve crops which were cut or burnt, rather than flattened.
Crop circles shot into prominence in the late 1970s as many circles began appearing throughout the English countryside. The phenomenon of crop circles became widely known in the late 1980s, after the media started to report crop circles in Hampshire and Wiltshire. To date, approximately 12,000 crop circles have been discovered in sites across the world, from locations such as the former Soviet Union, the UK and Japan, as well as the U.S. and Canada. Skeptics note a correlation between crop circles, recent media coverage, and the absence of fencing and/or anti-trespassing legislation.
Although farmers have expressed concern at the damage caused to their crops, local response to the appearance of a crop circles can often be enthusiastic, with locals taking advantage of the tourist potential of circles. Past responses have included bus or helicopter tours of circle sites, walking tours, t-shirts and book sales. Potential markets include curious tourists, scientists and crop circle researchers, and individuals seeking a spiritual experience by praying to and communing with spirits.
In 1996, a circle appeared near Stonehenge, and the farmer set up a booth and charged a fee. He collected £30,000 in four weeks. The value of the crop had it been harvested was probably about £150.
Early examples of crop circles were usually simple circular patterns of various sizes. After some years, more complex geometric patterns emerged. In general, the early formations (1970–2000) seemed to be based on the principles of sacred geometry. Later formations, those occurring after 2000, appear to be based on other principles, natural sciences and mathematics designs, including fractals. Many crop circles now have fine intricate detail, regular symmetry and careful composition. Elements of three-dimensionality became more frequent, culminating in spectacular images of cube-shaped structures.
After the public admission by some of the creators, crop circle activity skyrocketed. Each new design sought to be more complex than earlier ones. Today, crop circle designs have increased in complexity to the point where they have become an art form in and of themselves.
Crop circle maker John Lundberg, in an interview with Mark Pilkington, spoke about this change in crop circle designs, "I am rather envious of circlemakers in other countries. Expectations about the size and complexity of formations that appear in the UK are now very high, whereas the rather shabby looking Russian formation made the national news. Even Vasily Belchenko, deputy secretary of the Russian Security Council, was on site gushing about its origin: 'There is no doubt that it was not man made... an unknown object definitely landed there.' If the same formation appeared in the UK it would undoubtedly be virtually ignored by researchers and the media alike."
A triple Julia set, widely considered at the time to be the pinnacle of the crop circle formations, was found on Windmill Hill near Yatesbury, Wiltshire on 7 July 1996. It measured 900 by , with 151 circles.
The pair became frustrated when their work did not receive significant publicity, so in 1981 they created a circle in Matterley Bowl, a natural amphitheatre just outside Winchester, Hampshire - an area surrounded by roads from which a clear view of the field is available to drivers passing by. Their designs were at first simple circles. When newspapers claimed that the circles could easily be explained by natural phenomena, Bower and Chorley made more complex patterns. A simple wire with a loop, hanging down from a cap - the loop positioned over one eye - could be used to focus on a landmark to aid in the creation of straight lines. Later designs of crop circles became increasingly complicated.
Bower's wife had become suspicious of him, noticing high levels of mileage in their car. Eventually, fearing that his wife suspected him of adultery, Bower confessed to her and subsequently he and Chorley informed a British national newspaper. Chorley died in 1996, and Doug Bower has made crop circles as recently as 2004. Bower has said that, had it not been for his wife's suspicions, he would have taken the secret to his deathbed, never revealing that it was a hoax.
Circlemakers.org, a group of crop circle makers founded by John Lundberg, have demonstrated that making what self-appointed cereologist experts state are "unfakeable" crop circles is possible. On more than one occasion such cereologists have claimed that a crop circle was genuine when the people making the circle had previously been filmed making the circle.
Scientific American published an article by Matt Ridley, who started making crop circles in northern England in 1991. He wrote about how easy it is to develop techniques using simple tools that can easily fool later observers. He reported on "expert" sources such as the Wall Street Journal who had been easily fooled, and mused about why people want to believe supernatural explanations for phenomena that are not yet explained. Methods to create a crop circle are now well-documented on the Internet.
On the night of July 11-12, 1992, a crop-circle making competition, for a prize of several thousand UK pounds (partly funded by the Arthur Koestler Foundation), was held in Berkshire. The winning entry was produced by three helicopter engineers, using rope, PVC pipe, a trestle and a ladder. Another competitor used a small garden roller, a plank and some rope.
Gábor Takács and Róbert Dallos, both then 17, were the first people to be legally charged with creating a crop circle. Takács and Dallos, of the St. Stephen Agricultural Technicum, a high school in Hungary specializing in agriculture, created a 36-meter diameter crop circle in a wheat field near Székesfehérvár, southwest of Budapest, on June 8 1992. On September 3rd, they appeared on a Hungarian TV show and exposed the circle as a hoax showing photos of the field before and after the circle was made. As a result, Aranykalász Co., the owners of the land, sued the youngsters for 630,000 HUF (approximately $3000 USD) in damages. The presiding judge ruled that the students were only responsible for the damage caused in the 36 meters diameter circle, amounting to about 6,000 HUF (approximately $30 USD) and that 99% of the damage to the crops was caused by the thousands of visitors that flocked to Szekesfehervar following the media's promotion of the circle. The fine was eventually paid by the TV show, as were the students' legal fees.
Not everybody accepts that circles are man-made, believing instead that many designs are too perfect and that they lack signs of human interaction. Among these critics was British born astronomer Gerald Hawkins who, prior to his death, argued that some circles displayed a level of complexity and accuracy that would be difficult to recreate on paper, let alone in a field after dark. In response, circle creating groups and proponents of the man-made hypothesis state that it is possible to create a complex design by marking radii and angles with rope, and to enter and to move about a field using landscape features and tractor trails in order to avoid leaving other marks.
Since appearing in the media in the 1970s, crop circles have become the subject of various paranormal and fringe beliefs, ranging from the hypothesis that they are created by freak meteorological phenomena to the belief that they represent messages from extraterrestrials.
According to material published by the BLT institute, anomalies found at some circle sites in England and the US are consistent with them having been created when localized columns of ionized air (dubbed plasma vortices/vortexes) form over standing crops. Other hypotheses attribute them to atmospheric phenomena such as freak tornadoes or ball lightning.
The location of many crop circles near ancient sites such as Stonehenge, barrows, and chalk horses has led to many New Age belief-systems incorporating crop circles; Including the beliefs that they are formed in relation to ley lines and that they give off energy that can be detected through dowsing. New Age followers sometimes gather at crop circle sites in order to meditate, or because they believe that they can use the circle in order to contact spirits.
UFOs and other lights in the sky have been reported in connection with many crop circle sites, leading to them becoming associated with UFOs and aliens. Some people claim to have seen images of UFOs forming crop circles or overflying them, though photographs have been dismissed by skeptics as being indistinct or clear hoaxes.
The main criticism of non-human creation of crop circles is that evidence of these origins, besides eyewitness testimonies, is scant. Crop circles are usually easily explicable as the result of human pranksters. There have also been cases in which researchers declared crop circles to be "the real thing," only to be confronted soon after with the people who created the circle and documented the fraud (see above). Many others have demonstrated how complex crop circles are created.
In his 1997 book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark Carl Sagan discussed alien-based theories of crop circle formation. Sagan concluded that no empirical evidence existed to link UFOs with crop circles. Specifically, that there were no credible cases of UFOs being observed creating a circle, yet there were many cases when it was known that human agents, such as Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, were responsible. Circle creators Doug Bower and Dave Chorley concur.
In 1999 researcher Colin Andrews received funding from Laurence Rockefeller to conduct a two year investigation into crop circle hoaxing. Andrews put together a team which studied crop circles that had been commissioned by various media outlets and infiltrated several groups known to be creating man-made circles. Using these man-made circles as a base, Andrews went on to study data from circles found in England in 1999 and 2000. Andrews concluded that 80% of all circles studied showed "unassailable" signs of having been man-made: Including post holes used to demarcate circle layouts or evidence of human tracks underlying the circle sites, but could not account for the remaining 20%, for which he was unable to find signs of human interaction. Andrews's figures have been disputed by CSICOP, who argue that Andrews's criteria for distinguishing between man-made circles and non man-made circles were insufficient as no official standard exists for determining the nature of a crop circle.
In 2002, Freddy Silva published Secrets in the Fields (2002). He paraphrases Gerald Hawkins' summary "If crop circles are made by hoaxers, then they should stop doing it, because they are breaking the law and damaging the food supply. If they are made by UFO aliens, they shouldn't give us back the dates of our trips to Mars and the names of the men from the Titanic era - famous, clever, but now forgotten. If some are transcendental, the power behind it should realize that our culture is not now willing to accept transcendental happenings. But if they are indeed transcendental, then society will have to make a big adjustment in the years ahead."(p299)
Critics have cited what they refer to as the 'shyness factor'. This alludes to the fact that no crop circle makers have been caught in the act. This assertion is not true however, and there are cases of circle makers being apprehended, including one high-profile case in 1998 when a circle was made for the media and the makers interrupted when seen in the act. In most cases, it appears that the creation of crop circles is a nocturnal activity. Usually nothing is reported, and during one attempt to observe the creation of a crop circle, numerous individuals witnessed nothing out of the ordinary, yet were astounded to see a crop circle in the field away from the one they had been watching the next morning.
In 2002, Discovery Channel commissioned five aeronautics and astronautics students from MIT to create crop circles of their own. Discovery's production team consulted with crop circle researcher Nancy Talbott, who provided them with three attributes that she believed set "real" crop circles apart from known man-made circles, such as those created by Doug Bower and Dave Chorley. These criteria were:
Over the course of a single night the team was able to create a stereotypical "man-made" circle that they then attempted to enhance using the three criteria. The team used lengths of rope to plot their design and trampled the wheat down in a spiral pattern using lengths of wooden board attached to loops of rope. To meet criterion 2, they constructed a portable microwave emitter, using it to superheat the moisture inside the corn stalks until it burst out as steam. To meet criterion 3, they built a device - dubbed the "Flammschmeisser" - that sprayed iron particles through a heated ring. However, the device proved to be too time consuming to use, and they were forced to finish the task by using a pyrotechnic charge to distribute the iron around the circle. The circle was later analyzed by graduate students from MIT, who declared it to be "on a par with any of the documented cases". Their conclusion was later questioned by Talbott, who noted that the team had only been able to recreate two of the three criteria. Talbott also expressed concerns that the iron particles were not distributed laterally. Furthermore, she felt that the team's use of night vision headsets and other technologically advanced items would be out of reach for the average hoaxer.
The creation of the circle was recorded and used in the Discovery channel documentary "Crop Circles: Mysteries in the Fields".
The UK based artists Circlemakers.org have been asked to create numerous crop circles since the mid 1990s for movies, TV shows, music videos, adverts and PR stunts. Clients to date have included BP, Royal Bank of Scotland, Red Bull, Greenpeace, Microsoft, Nike, Shredded Wheat, AMD, Hello Kitty, Pepsi, Weetabix, BBC, The Sun, Mitsubishi, O2, Big Brother, National Geographic, NBC-TV, Orange Mobile, History Channel and the Discovery Channel.
New Age author Dan Joy in 1991 humorously suggested that crop circles are an advertising campaign displaying the logos of galaxy-wide corporations, preparing Earth for its forthcoming admission to the Galactic Federation of Planets.
An episode of the cartoon Backyardigans entitled "News Flash" involves crop circles in an Iowa cornfield
Sceptical and scientific analysis:
Circle creators, and information on making your own crop circles:
Pro paranormal explanation websites: