Round In (Crop) Circles

M. Night Shyamalans Signs to raise the profile of crop circles.

Cropcircle Baryburycastle Wiltshire
An example of a crop circle: Barbury Castle, oilseed rape, Wiltshire, England, May 3, 1999.

On August 2, Touchstone Pictures will release M. Night Shyamalans Signs, a star vehicle for Mel Gibson, who plays a farmer that becomes famous after crop circles begin appearing in his fields. For the uninitiated, crop circles are patternsman-made or the work of non-human, intelligent beings (depending on who you believe)created by flattening crops in a pre-conceived fashion so that a recognizable design becomes evident. Determining the true nature of crop circles is difficult because crop circle artists (a.k.a. hoaxers), researchers, historians and enthusiasts rarely make definitive claims. While Signs isnt likely to clarify any hot-button crop circle issues, it promises to be entertaining and will certainly add fuel an already lively debate.

Talking in Circles

Ask ten people from the crop circle community where and when crop circles first appeared and you will likely get ten different answers. According to Andy Thomas, longtime crop circle researcher, founding member of Southern Circular Research and editor of, the very earliest account that may well describe a formation is from Assen, Holland in 1590, but the most famous example is the mowing devil illustration, recorded in a pamphlet issued in Hertfordshire, England in 1678. However, John Lundberg, self-professed crop circle artist and operator of, credits artist Doug Bower with creating the contemporary crop circle phenomenon in the mid-to-late 1970s. He took his inspiration from the Tully UFO nest case [January 19, 1966]a swirled circle of swampland in Australia that was allegedly left behind by a UFO, says Lundberg.

Regardless, theres little doubt that in the last 15 years crop circles have become more common and more sophisticated. In the early 90s the term cerealogy (the study of crop circles) first appeared. During this time cerealogists (crop circle researchers) of varying repute have popped up; they frequently publish books or release documentaries publicizing their work. Theres even an annual crop circle conference called The Glastonbury Symposium, a three-day event held each summer in Glastonbury, a small town in southwest England.

Location, Location, Location

The site of the conference isnt a coincidence. The majority of the crop circles discovered each year are in southern England, with Germany, Canada and the Netherlands also well represented. There is a clear correlation between the distribution of crop formations and geologic conditions, says Thomas. Underground water seems to be the key, for whatever reason. Work has shown that the vast majority of crop formations in southern England cluster around aquifers, he continues.

Its also possible that the most prolific crop circle creators simply live and work in southern England. According to a 1997 press release by Lundberg and fellow artist Rod Dickinson, crop formations . . . are artworks constructed anonymously under the cover of darkness by small teams of skilled and experienced artists.

Our group has been active for the past 11 years, and there are three other circle-making groups currently active in the UK, says Lundberg. Still, he refuses to specify how many circles his kind create each year. It varies, but I would not want to put a figure on it. Our group never claims formations. . . . Most [circle makers] want to remain anonymous, he emphasizes.

Meet Your Maker

According to the Tools page on, crop circles can be constructed using not much more than two stalk-stompers, a ball of pre-stretched nylon string, a two-foot-long marking pole and 100 feet of plastic surveying tape. However, it would seem that sophisticated designs would also require the use of more precise surveying tools and techniques.

Still, there are those who insist that only the most simplistic of crop circles are man-made and that the rest must be the work of beings with superior intelligence. The only people who say they are man-made are the people who arent paying attention," claims Suzanne Taylor, operator of (a Web site focused on the transformation of consciousness) and executive producer of an upcoming crop circle documentary. We have no way to do the geometry of these things; its beyond our design capacity. Its all we can do to figure out what they did, she continues.

According to crop circle investigator and lecturer Michael Glickman, my own work suggests that five to six percent are man-made, but as the whole hoax thing is based on deceit, who can be sure? In his recent video release, 7: The Pi Hypothesis and The Big Triangles (NTSC), he implies that the more sophisticated formations are not the work of humans, but profound communications from non-human intelligent life.

While Thomas evokes a more measured tone, he clearly believes that some greater power is at work. After 11 years of crop circle research, I can honestly say that I dont know [who is responsible for crop circles], he says. Its very hard to say whether were dealing with a phenomenon of extra-terrestrial intelligence, some kind of super-consciousness, collective telekinesis, natural forces, or something even more bizarre. The one thing I would say for certain is that I do not believe all crop circles are man-made.

Meanwhile, Lundberg seems genuinely happy about the controversy. Theres a very symbiotic relationship between us and the researchers. They need us to supply them with the circles and we need them to promote our work and invest it with meaning by creating myths and folklore around the phenomenon.

Survey Says

Although there are hundreds of crop circles discovered every year, two particular formations stand above the rest in the eyes of enthusiastsboth from Wiltshire, England. One is an elaborate triangular formation that appeared at Barbury Castle in 1991, the other an enormous six-armed design at Milk Hill in 2001. Clearly the phenomenon has expanded in complexity in the last few decades, says Thomas. The reason for this evolution is one of the more fascinating and controversial aspects to the whole mystery.

According to Taylor, the creators of the most sophisticated formations are making a concerted effort trying to demonstrate their intelligence in subjects like geometry and mathematics. We will never know who or what it is unless it tells us, claims Taylor. It has some kind of superior intelligencesomething we do not have a category for." She also maintains that its easy to differentiate between circles made by hoaxers and those made by non-human beings. They dont even come into the same ballpark as the really good ones, claims Taylor. If youve got hoaxers making good ones, let them show us what theyve made. Weve never seen that and we wont.

Close Encounters?

However, crop circle artists say they simply arent interested in becoming public figures or claiming individual formations. Our years of experience enable us to construct crop formations of a scale and complexity which lead many people to believe they are beyond human endeavor, notes Lundberg.

The artists are more than happy to encourage speculation about crop circle-related paranormal activity, even claiming that their own creators are prone to experiencing small balls of light, columns of light, and blinding flashes while creating circles. They also claim that visitors to their works commonly experience headaches, nausea and other physical disturbances.

Im happy for people to believe that circles are not man-made, says Lundberg. In fact, I encourage that point of view. In a nutshell, what we are doing is creating belief systems for others to inhabit.

Sign Language

Although Signs is certain to bring the crop circle debate to a wider audience, the movie trailer doesnt hide the fact that the film is pure fiction. I dont hold out much hope that the movie will adhere to any accuracy, says Thomas. The pre-publicity seems not to acknowledge that England has ever had any crop circles.

While Glickman is concerned that Signs will popularize and contaminate the subject, most circle enthusiasts seem pleased that crop circles have inspired a major motion picture. Personally, I am thrilled, enthuses Taylor. I dont care how they treat it. It opens the door to people knowing that there is a real phenomenon.

Others think that the film wont have a lasting impact. When the movie is through the real crop circles will still be out there, being argued about, cooed over and fascinating people as they are today, claims Thomas. Though the skeptics and hoaxers may always have the loudest voices, somewhere in many peoples minds there will always be a little chink of doubt surrounding what will continue to be a strange, beautiful and inspiring phenomenon, for as long as it deigns to appear.