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A Brief History of Crop Circles and the People Who Make Them

Updated on August 31, 2014

Crop Circle Aerial Photo

Crop Circle, 2001.
Crop Circle, 2001. | Source

Crop Circles Go Mainstream

Crop circles are my favorite hoaxes. Somehow, "paranormal experts" still expound theories about crop circles' extraterrestrial origins, weaving them into the latest "paranormal research" fad (currently Mayans and 2012), even while crop circles' terrestrial creators get together for conventions and share tips on websites!

I first became aware of crop circles' true history in the 1990s, when I stumbled across one of the websites where crop circle creators congregate and share tips. They even had a free download with a simple program to design your own crop circles. It was edgy, it was cute, and it was one of those weird geeky corners of the web that few people knew about.

Inevitably, it started to go commercial. Companies like Hello Kitty, Shredded Wheat, and television stations hired circle makers to do corporate logo and advertisement crop circles. The rock group Korn (naturally) hired the circlemakers to make a crop circle for them to play a gig in. It was still quirky and not that well-known. And then, watching baseball last night, I saw this commercial:

Pringles ® Crop Circle Commercial

Crop Circles in Commercials

Yep, that's a Pringles commercial. What strikes me is that it hasn't used the usual commercial TV trope of having a ufo burning a crop circle into a cornfield (British "corn", that is). There are no Men in Black trying to decipher a mysterious alien message. It hasn't even tried to pretend there's anything paranormal going on before shilling the product.

No, this commercial features happy, healthy, normal-looking people, not nerds, going out to a field to make a crop circle, just as naturally as one might go out for a picnic. There's even the proper crop cicle tools of the trade: boards on ropes (not a tractor: sheesh, Mercury, do a little research). The making of the crop circle is shown in an aerial view and in close-up, just in case you're not familiar with the technique.

Crop circles have lost the mystery. Nothing is unexplained. The basic crop circle facts are laid out for anyone who's missed the memo: a bunch of people take boards on ropes and stomp their way around a field of barley. Oh, and eat multigrain snacks.

I think that was a multigrain shark that just swam by. (And for those who missed that little fall from innocence, this is what happens when a once-entertaining series is scraping the bottom of the barrel.)

Oregon State University Students make a crop circle

A Brief History of Crop Circles

Yes, Virginia, Santa Claus is working for Coca-Cola. But let's look back at the history of this unusual art form, even if it's gone commercial like everything else.

According to, the first crop circle was created by a couple British blokes in Hampshire, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, in 1978. Bower recalled a rumor of a UFO rising from a "swirled nest of marsh grass" and thought they could set off a UFO hoax if they created such a "nest" in a wheatfield. They started doing it, and sure enough, it not only set off a rash of UFO fever, but other artists began imitating and vying to create ever more elaborate designs!

The area around Glastonbury, Stonehenge and Avebury drew a lot of circlemaker enthusiasts, drawn to plentiful wheat fields and the mystique of the area -- where better to perpetuate a UFO hoax than where UFOs are expected to be? Gradually they hooked up at conventions, sharing tips and newspaper clippings, insisting they didn't harm crops but were simply experimenting with an unusual artform. They also discovered firsthand how legends are born: in many documented cases, "witnesses" came forward reporting actual UFO sightings over crop circles whose human creators were known; UFO researchers "found" additional evidence at the sites, and paranormal investigators reported all kinds of mysterious phenomena.

The advent of computers made it easier to plan ever more complicated designs. Crop circles year by year tended to follow the history of pop culture and the history of computers. In the early years, Julia sets and fractals were popular, since they were all the rage in the nineties. Lately I've seen a suspicious trend of crop circles that look like the swirls and swooshes found around the borders of Wordpress themes and computer wallpaper. Once one set of crop circle artists comes up with a new style, others rush to imitate.

Firefox Logo Crop Circle by OSU Students

Crop Circle Aerial Photos

Photo by oddsock @ Flickr, CC
Photo by oddsock @ Flickr, CC | Source

The Enduring Myth of Crop Circles

In 1991, the original creators of crop circles opened up about the hoax. A few other crop circles jumped in to claim authorship, but from my own research, I believe Bower and Chorley got there first. What amazes me is the amount of paranormal "experts" who discount the photographic and video evidence that yes, indeed, we know who's doing it and when it started. After all, did you ever hear of crop circles prior to 1978? (No, a fictional story about a farmer and the devil doesn't count -- there are just too many folklore stories like that involving everything from banjos to the Yankees.)

As a mythology major, I have some inkling why we need Santa Claus, Groundhog Day and crop circles. There's just not enough myth in our lives: symbols that can appeal to and satisfy our hearts, not just our intellect, astounding and delighting us. So perhaps I should just thank Bower and Chorley for proving yet again how a mythology can spring to life out of humble seeds -- or, grains.

Anyway, crop circles look fantastic. Here's a video gallery of crop circle photos.

Crop Circles Video Collage

Crop Circles Poll

Should crop circles be legislated? If so, how?

See results

Crop Circles and Vandalism

Crop circle artists sometimes claim that since they're only bending over plants, not killing them, they're not doing damage. (In fact, this is also why crop circle researchers assert ufo origin: people couldn't do it without breaking the crops, they claim.)

There have been a few lawsuits by farmers against crop circle artists. In one case, the actual damage caused by the crop circle was minor, and the artists were found liable; the bulk of the damage was paid for by the TV show whose publicity brought tons of spectators tromping across the field!

So, here's the question. Is it pure vandalism? Should it be outlawed? Is it art? How about compensating the farmers?

Beautiful Aerial Photos of Crop Circles

Crop Circles: Art in the Landscape
Crop Circles: Art in the Landscape
Whatever you think of crop circles and their origin, nearly all of us can agree that they look amazing! Lucy Pringle's photo anthology presents an eye-popping collection of aerial photos of crop circles from 1993 to 2009.

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