conception of a UFO with a crop circle. (Copyright
Lee Krystek 1996)
For over three decades the southern English countryside
has been the site of a strange phenomenon that has baffled observers
and spawned countless news stories and more than a few books.
In the middle of the night, flattened circular depressions have
appeared in fields of wheat, rye and other cereal crops. They
range in diameter from ten feet to several hundred feet wide
and vary from simple circles to complex spirals with rings and
spurs. All have sharply defined edges.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the circles
is the frequency with which they occur. In 1990, over 700 crop
circles appeared in Britain.
People who attempt to study these circles have coined
a name for themselves: cereologists. The word comes from the
name of the Roman goddess of vegetation, Ceres. There are several
theories held by cereologists who think crop circles are the
result of some not well understood physical phenomena. The first
is that the depressions are the result of an unusual weather
effect. George Tenence Meaden, a former professor of physics,
calls this a "plasma vortex phenomenon" which he defines as
"a spinning mass of air which has accumulated a significant
fraction of electrically-charged matter." According to Meaden,
the effect is similar to that of ball lightning, but larger
and longer lasting.
formation of crop circles that appeared in southern England.
Some have also suggested the circles are the result
of top-secret military experiments noting that it might be possible
to project a beam of high intensity microwaves from a distance
with enough energy to vaporize the water in a plant causing
it to collapse. If the beam was controlled by a computer, it
would be possible for it to sweep out any pattern desired, no
matter how complex. Why the military would wish to puzzle the
public with such a display is unclear, but there are suggestions
it might be part of a dark psychological experiment.
Another theory is that somehow crop circles are
created by UFOs. Proponents of this theory note that occasionally
crop circles seem to appear in conjunction with a UFO sighting.
Some of the early, simple crop circles certainly do suggest
fields that might have been flattened by the weight of a grounded
flying saucer. As the circles have become more complex in shape,
though, proponents of the UFO theory have had to modify their
ideas suggesting that the marks left are due to the strange
effect of the craft's drive force on the plants. Others even
argue that the shapes are messages purposefully left by the
alien spaceship's crew.
A 1678 pamphlet entitled The Mowing-Devil
is sometimes referred to as the earliest evidence of a crop
circle. The pamphlet tells the story of a farmer who made a
deal with the devil to mow his field. While the woodcut illustration
appears to show a demonic creature cutting the field in a circular
pattern, the story indicates that the whole field was mysteriously
cut, not just a small section, as in the case of modern crop
Mowing Devil pamphlet from 1678.
Another early case comes from the 19th century.
Nature magazine published an article on July 29, 1880,
which reported on some circles that amateur scientist John Rand
Capron said he'd found in a field near Guildford in Surrey.
According to Capron:
The storms about this part of Surrey have been
lately local and violent, and the effects produced in some instances
curious. Visiting a neighbour's farm on Wednesday evening (21st),
we found a field of standing wheat considerably knocked about,
not as an entirety, but in patches forming, as viewed from a
distance, circular spots.
Examined more closely, these all presented much
the same character, viz., a few standing stalks as a center,
some prostrate stalks with their heads arranged pretty evenly
in a direction forming a circle round the center, and outside
these a circular wall of stalks which had not suffered.
Capron thought that the circles he observed were
somehow weather related and "suggestive to me of some cyclonic
Despite the intense interest among the paranormal
enthusiasts for supernatural explanations that depend on alternate
science or UFOs, the most likely cause for almost all of the
crop circles is that they are hoaxes. Even the most ardent fans
of either the weather or UFO theories admit that a significant
fraction of the circles are manmade. One cereologist, Jenny
Randles, a believer in the weather theory wrote: "I would put
the hoaxes to comprise something over 50 percent of the total."
Another circle researcher, Colin Andrews, working on a grant
from Laurance Rockefeller, came to the conclusion that 80% of
circles made in the years 1999 and 2000 were manmade and either
prompted by business and/or media interests.
video showing flying lights creating a set of crop circles.
Such footage is easily faked with computer graphics, however.
The first hoaxsters responsible for crop circles
may have been two local gentlemen named Doug Bower and Dave
Chorley. According to the two, they conceived the prank over
drinks in a pub near Winchester, Hampshire, England in 1978.
They found they could build circles quickly using simple tools.
At first, there was little reaction to their work, but in 1981
they chose a site for a circle called Cheesefoot head, a hill
which was very visible from the nearby motorway. The incident
made the papers and all of a sudden crop circles were big news.
Because some people argued that the circles were the result
of a simple weather phenomenon, the two started making their
circles more complex involving intricate geometric forms. The
two continued their work until 1991 when they approached a British
newspaper acknowledging their actions and demonstrated the technique
to reporters. Though Chorley died in 1996, Bower continued to
make circles until 2004. Since then, other groups have apparently
taken up the practice.
Why don't these backers of the weather or UFO explanations
believe that all the circles are hoaxes? Most would argue that
a close examination of a circle will reveal differences between
a hoaxed circle and a "genuine" circle. There is no clear criteria
about what makes a circle genuine, however. In fact, the BBC
once asked a circle "expert" to examine a formation they had
found. The expert declared it real, only to have to reverse
his judgment when the BBC film crew told him they'd had the
circle especially built for the occasion.
Some cereologists claim that the plants in hoaxed
circles have broken stems while those in real circles are bent.
However, whether the plant is bent or broken depends on the
condition of the plant rather than the type of force used in
flattening it. During the summer, green, moist, wheat is easily
bent and can only be broken with great difficulty.
Believers in supernatural explanations also argue
that many of the crop circles are extremely comlicated patterns
that would be impossible to create by hand in a single night.
Indeed, some of the patterns do seem bafflingly complex.
of circles built as a six-sided triskelion.
In 2009 a crew from National Geographic television
challenged a group of artists called the Circlemakers to reproduce
a highly-complex pattern designed by a professor of mathematics
at the Imperial College of London. The formation, based on the
Circles of Apollonius, required making over eighty circles of
various sizes in exacting locations across the field. The group
had to do this in a single night, arriving after dark and leaving
before sunrise. Though the work took most of the evening, the
Circlemakers were able to complete the complex diagram without
mistakes, demonstrating that even the most complex formations
can be made by a group of dedicated workers in just a few hours.
So how do you hoax a crop circle? The tools are
simple: A stake, a chain or rope, some boards, and a few people.
The stake is pounded into the ground at the center of the soon-to-be
circle and the rope attached to it. The rope is then stretched
out and someone standing at the end marches around the stake
to make a perimeter. The boards, controlled by ropes held in
the hoaxster's hands, and pressed down by a foot, can then be
used to flatten the plants within the circle. Rings can be made
through the same technique simply by leaving some sections undamaged.
(Warning: The above information is not meant to encourage
anybody to trespass or vandalize. If you want to experiment
with making a circle, get permission from the owner of the grounds
Though Bower and Chorley may have started the phenomenon
in England, crop circles have been seen around the world. They
have also become a part of popular culture. In 2006 the Circlemakers
stomped out a design that included the product logo for Shredded
Wheat. A picture of the results was then used on the cereal
box's label. Crop circles also made an appearance in the 2001
film Signs when a farmer in Bucks County, Pennsylvania,
discovers them in his corn field as a prelude to an alien invasion.
Since nobody can tell the difference between a hoaxed
and "genuine" circle, is there any reason not
to believe that all of them are hoaxed? Probably not. Several
factors argue in favor of the complete hoax theory. First, there
is a lack of historical precedent for crop circles. Despite
Capron's report, crop circles as they are seen today are a recent
phenomenon only thirty or forty years old. Secondly, the number
and complexity of the circles have grown in proportion to the
media coverage of them (suggesting that people are more apt
to make circles if the circles get in the news). Finally, there
are almost no credible reports of someone actually seeing a
circle being made by either a UFO (though some clearly hoaxed
videos have appeared on YouTube) or weather phenomena
(suggesting that the hoaxsters are purposefully keeping out
Perhaps the mystery here is not what makes the circles,
but what would cause so many otherwise normal and rational people
in southern Britain to make strange circles in the middle of
the night in a farm field?
Copyright Lee Krystek 1996,
2010. All rights Reserved.