As the 2017 crop circle season now unfolds, Andy looks back at 2016, when the ever-fascinating circle mystery fell quieter around the world but remained strong in the English heartlands, where many impressive masterpieces made their presence felt and stirred valuable debate as intensely as ever…
Ambition and Drama
On 12 August 2016, near the English village of Ansty in Wiltshire, a huge and highly elaborate mandala appeared in a wheat field (pictured). Its central motif resembled leaves, petals and a complex array of curved diamonds, surrounded by 20 intriguing but unidentified symbols with a Hindu-like feel to them. Thin rectangular dashes ran around the outer perimeter. Perhaps the most sophisticated and ambitious crop formation in a few years, it was even reported by a number of British newspapers after what had felt like a long news blackout on the phenomenon.
Then, naturally, the questioning started, even among crop circle researchers. Did it look perhaps a little too ambitious, too busy, too ‘unnatural’? Was it a commissioned artwork made to raise money for charities, courtesy of the nearby farm shop that was charging £5 a head to go inside it? Was it, in fact, a commercial logo, resembling as it did, in part, the central emblem of a company that makes smoking bongs (‘pipes of peace’)? As the doubt set in, the leading Crop Circle Connector website felt moved to put a notice on its site decrying such speculation, while others said it was clearly an extraterrestrial intervention designed to tap into our usual human hopes and fears by deliberately including controversial elements.
In other words, 2016 was demonstrating that once again the Great Crop Circle Debate is more than alive and well, with all the requisite drama and discussion that these remarkable patterns in the fields always inspire. All these years on and the circles continue to provide a unique window of opportunity where we are forced to reassess our belief boundaries, sifting what we can and can’t accept and reconsidering the whole nature of the world around us in the process. The deep disputes may even be a key factor in their ever-elusive purpose.
The Netherlands saw the 2016 global season begin with a simple Celtic cross in grass at the now regular site of Hoeven, Noord-Brabant, on 9 April, with a more complex pictogram following there on 6 May – the same day the traditional English centre of activity kicked off with an unusual but pleasing pentagon-based pattern in rapeseed at East Kennett, Wiltshire (pictured). Thus things were a little late to start here compared to some years, but three more simple circles or ringed circles would arrive in Wiltshire throughout May. Meanwhile, Germany received a neat spiral swirl at Brandenburg, Großziethen, on 15 May, the first of a number of modest-sized but rather sweet designs that country would receive over the summer, resembling flowers or butterflies.
Occasionally crop formations transform themselves, and the basic ringed circle in barley which had arrived near Silbury Hill, Wiltshire, on 28 May performed such a trick on 5 June, unexpectedly blossoming into a five-pointed star with outer spirals. Indeed, June would see a burst of new ingenuity, now all in grain crops, producing several fine entries. The English standouts included a 10-pointed star at Mere, Wiltshire, on 5 June, with a more unusual pictogram of a diamond with circles and crescents appearing nearby the next day. Hampshire also reactivated, with a complex flower in the classic area of Chilcomb Down on 21 June, and then a clever array of thin crescents within a ring at Tichborne on 24 June, its effect calling to mind the shine from a compact disc. A diamond-shaped cluster of ‘flowers of life’ followed at Popham on 28 June.
Back in Wiltshire, at Hackpen Hill on 23 June (pictured), controversy raised two heads. A clever motif of a pair of stylized sharks swimming in a circle seemed too contrived for some observers to take seriously. Yet, as some pointed out, if ‘alien faces’ (see Two Faces section) can be accepted as meaningful, why not sharks? The fact that this appeared on the very day that Britain – even more controversially – elected to begin the process of leaving the European Union made it seem pertinent, with a number of people wondering about its message. Should we watch out for “sharks” along the way? But, if so, on which side were the sharks? Perhaps the ouroboros-like nature of the design was making the point that there will be sharks in the pool whichever way a nation swims.
Another Wiltshire highlight in June was a neatly notched pentagon in a ring at Stourton on the 29th, the second English pentagon of the year. With these appearing before the unanticipated ascension to power of Brexit-supporting Donald Trump, it was wondered whether the pentagon theme might be some kind of reference to the USA’s alleged hegemonic desire for Britain to stay under the more conveniently controllable umbrella of the EU. Regardless of the truth, such speculation demonstrates once more the power of the crop formations to make people think.
As for the USA itself, rarely a hotspot for the phenomenon, it did not manage to produce a single crop circle in the summer of 2016, but another superpower, Russia, did receive a curious pair of joined circles with interestingly merged swirls at Krasnodar, Krasnodarskiy, on 9 June.
The night before this, back in usually more active Europe, Italy came up with its one proper event of the year in the form of a six-fold mesh of rings around a central circle at Vanzaghello, near Milan. Italy has been busy with formations in recent years, but for this season, disappointingly, the only other was a logo made for the Buongrano biscuit brand, leaving some to wonder why the Italians had been left bereft, with not even their usual one-off masterpiece in the Torino area.
Aside from a number of retro-looking pictograms and a ringed circle with astronomical-looking standing tufts in the Netherlands (with the now requisite tales of balls of light and strange synchronicities around some of the Dutch events from the much-debated controversial psychic Robbert van den Broeke), and one very wobbly-looking ringed circle in Switzerland, only Germany provided any major global developments in July. An eight-fold floral pattern was found back at Brandenburg on the 12th, and then, spectacularly, the best of the Germanic designs arrived on the 23rd with a very impressive spread of wide crescents in a four-fold motif at Mammendorf, Bavaria. The arrangement called to mind clusters of atoms or molecules, and its neatness and fine lay made it a general highlight of the year.
It was left to England to provide the majority of July’s artworks, with most of those in the traditional centre of Wiltshire. Among the notables: a seven-pointed star and crescent surrounded by a ring of many small standing rectangles near Stonehenge on 8 July made up for some geometrical anomalies with its striking overall effect; a ‘smiling heart’ with a curious radial strip (the ‘smile’) at the centre of its lay was one of the more unusual designs of the year, at Wilton on the 15th (pictured); a thin lattice-like array of triangles and diamonds within a ring punctuated with three circles at Hackpen Hill on the 16th made for another unusual approach.
Some old circle haunts seemed to be consciously revisited in July. A non-Wiltshire highlight arrived at Cheesefoot Head in Hampshire on 25 July in the form of a very neat five-fold emblem resembling twisted twine. The Cheesefoot area was once upon a time the central hotspot for crop circles in the 1980s, before Wiltshire took precedence. This connection almost seemed to be played on when a similar-style pattern was then found near the famous long barrow at Wiltshire’s West Kennet on 28 July, this time in the shape of an eight-pointed star exhibiting another tidy lay. Then the ancient site of Cley Hill, near Warminster, location of so many UFO ‘flaps’ – and several crop formations – in decades past, produced a ring of 20 wedge-like shapes on 30 July.
Much farther east, the village of Roydon in Essex, home in the last few years to a number of elaborate pictograms, presented another of the ‘transforming’ variety of patterns. A complex array of circles, rings and small ‘grapeshot’, which arrived on 24 July, found itself with an extra circle and a new accompanying pictogram of a similar style on the 27th, with some further squiggly paths and extra grapeshot appending themselves on the 30th.
However, it fell to the Wiltshire village of Calstone Wellington to come up with perhaps the most visually stunning formation of the season on 23 July (pictured). Made from several ‘layers’ of yet more pentagons and five-pointed stars, its huge scale, clever configuration and crisp lines recalled some of the best overtly geometrical arrangements of the late 1990s and early 2000s. It was a favourite of the year for many aficionados.
Every now and then, more pictorial approaches come into play in the fields, and this year two faces, albeit of different kinds, made their presence felt in mid-July. The first was of an archetypal ‘grey’ alien, with what looked like a radiating feather-like headdress, at Reigate, Surrey, on 19 July (pictured), one of the more distinguished of the few non-Wiltshire English designs this season. The local Surrey Mirror had the farmer spitting anger at what he called simple “vandalism”, but the face was precise and the lay inside was complex and flowing, far from the mangled mess that the report implied. Alien faces have appeared before, most famously the still-remarkable ‘ET and disc’ of 2002 at Winchester, Hampshire. Those who believe that such creatures are physically real point to such emblems as evidence that at least some crop formations may have extraterrestrial origins. That, or at least something is playing with our perception of what we think aliens look like.
On 22 July (pictured), Wiltshire produced a potentially more ancient counterpart: another striking face next to the unquestionably ancient hillfort of Figsbury Ring. This version appeared to depict a stylised feline visage beneath a ringed circle, all contained within another headdress, this time of jagged rays, perhaps resembling sunbeams. If the circle is seen as depicting the orb of the Sun itself, it might be that the design was a modern take on the Egyptian lion goddess Sekhmet, sometimes shown with a Sun disc above her head. Less noble interpretations saw the face as the Cheshire Cat from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a trickster presence. Either way, the formation was well rendered and seemed to fit appropriately with its alien companion at Reigate.
An English August
Peculiarly, the circles deserted the rest of the world completely in August, leaving England to provide the sole 10 events of the month. Of these, the most prominent was the remarkable but controversial mandala discussed earlier, but other Wiltshire standouts included: an elaborate six-petalled flower near the famous Westbury White Horse carving on the 4th, its distinctive jewel-shaped petals criss-crossed with fine lines; a simple, ringed circle at Etchilhampton on the 8th, distinguished by a complex ‘basket weave’ effect and an implied pentacle in the lay; a very elaborate hexagon with rings, semi-circles and an exquisite, combed effect near Devizes on the 17th; and a series of fine semi-circles and small circles resembling a close-up of a solar system or planetary rings and moons at All Cannings on the 24th. A swastika design at Beckhampton on the 27th, meanwhile, raised a few eyebrows, but seemed to be depicting the uncorrupted sacred version of antiquity (from the Sanskrit word svastika, which means ‘lucky or auspicious object’) with central dots in between the arms.
Three other English counties donated August formations: a curious triangulated grid at Chilcomb, Hampshire and a pop-art play on squares in negative and positive at Chaldon, Surrey, both appeared on the 3rd, leaving Essex to close the main season with an unusual pictogram based around a ringed crescent with crossbars and small circles at Rochford on the 29th.
Fluctuation and Appreciation
A total of 61 crop formations were recorded around the world up to the end of August 2016. This rose to 68 in the autumn months, with Norway producing four small rings in one field at Lillestrom on 3 September and The Netherlands hosting one more cluster of circles at Bosschenhoofd on 14 October. Notable, though, was the sudden activation of the southern hemisphere; Brazil received a double-ringed flower-of-life (with the somewhat crude digits ‘43’ next to it, possibly added) at Prudentopolis on 27 September and a ringed triangle at Ipuacu as late as 4 November; Argentina hosted a ringed circle with a long comma-like tail at Malabrigo on 21 October; and Australia received a design of circles and semi-circles at Ben Nevis (Victoria) on 13 October and a further similar design in the same place on the 20th.
This last global burst aside, what was notable this season was the relative quietness beyond England. The traditional heartlands of the phenomenon delivered fairly reliably, but global activity seemed subdued, despite a few highlights. Only 22 formations appeared in other countries, a much smaller proportion than the general average. This may mean something or it may mean nothing; numbers go up and go down from year to year, and geographic diversity seems to vary as a matter of course. Even in England itself, some counties, like Warwickshire, which have been busy in the last few years, took a semester break this season, but things may easily reactivate in due course.
After years of wondering whether the circles might die down completely, there is now an acceptance that they seem to be here to stay on at least some level. That’s a nice feeling, and whatever one’s standpoint on the phenomenon – whether its origin is perceived as definitively paranormal or something closer to this realm – it can still be observed that the mystery brings out a spirit of enquiry and soul-searching that remains heart-warmingly valuable, demonstrated ably by the animated responses to the much-publicised formation we began with here.
In a world full of uncertainty and concerns, we should rejoice that ingenious beauty continues to have currency, drawing people away from anxiety and into a more focused place of contemplation, healthy debate and aesthetic appreciation. The circles remain a mystery worth celebrating.