In 1678 a small newsletter was printed, describing the sighting of a mysterious symmetrical pattern in a farmer’s field in south England. Understandably, it caused much local interest, and is the first ever documented report of a crop circle in the world.

No one knew the reason for this strange phenomenon, but then British naturalist Robert Plot discovered ‘fairy rings’ – naturally occurring rings of mushrooms – eight years later. He suggested that they might be caused by unusual airflow patterns carrying the spores in a certain way. More crop circles were sighted, but it took until 1880 for Britain’s highly respected scientific journal Nature to feature a detailed description of a ringed crop pattern in a farmer’s field. Suddenly, crop circles started to be taken seriously, yet remained unexplained.

It wasn’t until 1991 that meteorologist Terence Meaden suggested that – like fairy rings – they could be caused by atypical weather patterns, that a third explanation was given for this phenomenon. Previously, people had either believed that it was the work of human beings, or aliens from outer space!

Crop circles appear in wheat or barley fields all over the world, but there’s is a disproportionately large amount of them in Britain, with two thirds of all reported sightings. Many occur in the south western English county of Wiltshire, which used to be part of the ancient county of Wessex. It has several important stone circles, including Stonehenge and Avebury, which are over five thousand years old, plus other ancient religious monuments like Silbury Hill. Many crop circles appear in this area, and some people think this is no coincidence…

Those who study the appearance of UFOs (unidentified flying objects), often take special interest in crop circles, some calling them ‘flying saucer nests’. One famous Wiltshire resident, the respected scientist and astronomer Sir Patrick Moore, got them very excited when he wrote about strange patterns in the fields surrounding his house in 1963, and since then the county is a favourite for UFO hunters. The Barge Inn pub at Honeystreet has become an unofficial national headquarters for the study of crop circles, with crop circle tours given and academics coming from Australia and Japan to study them!

We cannot definitively say that all crop circles are man-made, but surely the vast majority are. In many British villages you can find local people who say they make them, either as a hobby or for money. Indeed, it’s likely that some land owners pay for this, because they can profit from the tourists who come to see them. Cerealogists (crop circle researchers) point out that they tend to be near roads, and cultural heritage monuments, and are relatively easy to access for tourists. In Wiltshire for example, one farmer was recently charging £3 per view. This isn’t always the cause though, because some farmers do get angry when crop circles mysteriously appear and mow them flat before people see them.

Occasionally ‘crop artists’ to do it for publicity, and there are a growing number of these around the world. Back in the nineteen eighties, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley amazed the world’s media when they demonstrated how to make them with nothing more than a plank of wood, some rope and a baseball cap fitted with a loop of wire to help them walk in a straight line. They claimed to have made over two hundred from 1978 to 1991. The British arts collective Circlemakers have been making them all around the world since the early nineties for commercial clients.

So far, around ten thousand crop circles have been reported from all around the world. Although most are obviously man made, some are breathtaking in their beauty and complexity – Professor Gerald S Hawkins, who decoded the geometrical layout of Stonehenge, derived a new mathematical theorem based on the diatonic ratios in crop circles. So there is no one single, easy explanation. Just when you start to think that they must all be hoaxes, stunning examples appear such as the 194-circle fractal design in Avebury, Wiltshire in 1996, which seem impossible to make. How could such large and ornate creations be made overnight, with no one noticing?

Then there’s the number and scale of them. In the past three months in Wiltshire alone, fifteen new crop circles have been spotted. Monique Klinkenbergh from the Crop Circle Access Centre says the county is “the unquestioned homeland" of these special patterns, which is why it has chosen to run an exhibition at St. Peter’s Church in Marlborough. "Not all circles are man-made," she says, “and after seven years of studying the subject, and having experienced unexplainable things myself, I know there is more going on than just people with planks and ropes. There are unknown facts about this authentic, mysterious and misunderstood phenomenon…”