In 1992, John Michell and I helped organize the first and last International
Crop Circle Making Competition.
In the late 1970s, circular areas of flattened crops mysterious appeared in
fields in southern England, especially in Wiltshire, and throughout the 1980s
they were found in increasing numbers. By 1991 the annual count was about
800. A few appeared in other countries, but the great majority were, and still
are, in England.
By the late 1980s some of the formations had evolved a long way from the
basic circle, with concentric rings, satellite circles and rectangular, triangular
and wavy shapes. By 1990 the most complex formations were pictograms and
‘insectograms’. The forms evolved further in 1991, and the season ended with
an astonishing fractal pattern, the Mandelbrot Set, in a field near Cambridge.
In 1991, two artists in their 60s, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, claimed
that they had been had been making crop circles for years. They gave a
demonstration of their rather modest skills to journalists. Those of a sceptical
cast of mind tend to be credulous when it comes to the claims of hoaxers, and
jumped to the conclusion that hoaxing by Doug and Dave explained the whole
phenomenon. But even if their claims were to be believed, they were making a
maximum of 30 formations a year, leaving the great majority unaccounted for.
Doug and Dave were mystified themselves.
Thinking through the hoax hypothesis to its logical conclusion led into
the treacherous territory of conspiracy theories. Who were all the hoaxers,
apart from Doug and Dave? Were they in the military or intelligence services?
Were they members of occult groups, or secret societies? Performance or
landscape artists? Japanese? There were also several naturalistic hypotheses:
the crop formations were caused by complex whirlwinds, or even by migrating
hedgehogs. Other proposals included a psychokinetic downloading from
the collective unconscious, or the activity of ‘higher intelligences’ or extraterrestrials.
Some people even claimed to have tape-recorded spaceships in
fields where formations were appearing at night, but ornithologists identified
the high, unearthly sounds as the song of the grasshopper warbler, a small bird
with a ventriloquist-like ability to conceal its location.
Crop formations generally appear at night and are fully formed by sunrise.
Despite many attempts to observe formations being made, the vast majority
appeared mysteriously. In 1991 the debate was dominated by the question of
what people could and could not do. Defenders of mystery theories claimed
that various features of the more complex formations, including the way the crops were flattened, could not have been produced by any human agency.
It was in this context that a group of people, including myself, John and
Richard Adams decided to organise a crop circle making competition to find out
exactly what people could and could not do. The competition was co-sponsored
by The Guardian and The Cerealogist, the leading crop circle journal in Britain,
edited by John. A German magazine, PM, funded the contest, enabling us to
offer a first prize of ₤3,000. I was the chairman of the organizing committee.
The competition was announced in May 1992 and teams interested in taking
part had to submit an application in advance. A panel of crop circle experts
advised us on the design (see diagram) of a standard formation that all the teams
were required to make. This contained supposedly difficult-to-hoax features
like rings, and the instructions also specified the directions in which the crops
were to be flattened. This design and general guidance notes for competitors
were sent to all of the participants three weeks before the actual contest, so
they had time to plan their strategy. They were also sent a copy of the marking
scheme by which the judges would allocate points to the various formations.
The location of the contest was kept secret, and the participating teams were
informed of it only 48 hours in advance.
The contest itself took place on the night of Saturday July 11, 1992, in a wheat
field on the estate of Sir Francis Dashwood in West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire,
thanks to John’s friendship with Sir Francis. His son Edward (now Sir Edward,
the twelfth baronet) kindly supervised the arrangements, which included the
erection of a tent beside the field for our organizational headquarters. On
Saturday afternoon, we marked out equal-sized plots that were allocated at
random to the 12 competing teams. The competitors had to arrive at the tent
by 9pm, when they were given the final rules and instructions. They were free
to work in their plots in the hours of darkness, between 10pm and 3am, when
they had to leave the field. During this period, members of the organising group
were patrolling the area to make sure there was no sabotage of other people’s
plots by contestants or by anyone else, and after all the teams had left the field,
the area was guarded by Sir Francis Dashwood’s gamekeepers.
We arranged for a helicopter to fly over the field soon after dawn to take
aerial photographs of the site. The five judges, led by Jurgen Kroenig, were in
the field soon afterwards. When we were assembling the team of judges, we
invited the Wessex Skeptics, who claimed that all crop circles were hoaxes, to
nominate a judge, but they refused. They thought that our set design was too
difficult to execute in the dark and claimed we were deliberately setting up an
unfair contest. We also invited Doug and Dave to take part, pointing out that
with all their practice, they should have found it easy to win the ₤3,000 prize.
They also declined. However, one sceptic entered the contest himself: Matt Ridley, along with his sister. Like the Wessex Skeptics, he complained that the
design was too complex and that we were loading the dice to favour mysterious
explanations. At the time, Ridley worked as a part-time journalist for the
Daily Telegraph and also wrote books on evolutionary theory. (He later became
chairman of the ill-fated Northern Rock Bank, whose spectacular difficulties
in 2007 triggered the first run a British bank for more than a century, and
involved the Government in a ₤25 billion rescue operation.)
The contestants were very varied. One team consisted of Cambridge
undergraduates; another was a group of schoolboys from Hampshire who
had been practising all week on the playing fields. A young American
graduate student from Oxford, Jim Schnabel, worked alone. One team came
in camouflaged outfits with lamps strapped to their foreheads. The rules had
specified in advance that lights could be used, but would result in a loss of points.
All the other teams worked in darkness, including two women accompanied
by a Pyrenean Mountain Dog that had been trained to pull planks through
standing crops. Unfortunately he was not much help because he went to sleep
soon after the contest began.
The night was cloudy, with intermittent rain and only occasional moonlight.
The next morning, after the aerial photographs had been taken, the judges were
the only people allowed to enter the field. By midday they had completed their
judging process, taking into account both their observations on the ground and
the aerial photographs. The winning team consisted of three young engineers
from the Westland Helicopter Company. However, before being presented
with a cheque for ₤3,000 by the Earl of Haddington, they had to make the
formation again in broad daylight so that everyone could see how it was done.
Programmes about the competition on BBC radio had revealed the location
that morning, and the circle-making demonstration was open to the public for
a modest entry fee of Åí1. Several hundred people came to watch, along with TV
crews, journalists and photographers.
The demonstration by the winning team was fascinating. The young
engineers employed very simple apparatus. For flattening the crop, they used a
roller consisting of a piece of PVC piping with a rope through it, pushing it with
their feet. In order to get into the crop without leaving footprints, they used
two lightweight aluminium stepladders with a plank between them, acting as
a bridge. For marking out a ring, they did not put a post in the centre, but
rather used a telescopic device made out of plastic pipes of different diameter
projecting from the top of an aluminium step ladder. A string was attached to
the end of it in such a way that by holding the string and walking in a circle
around this central position a perfect ring of flattened plants could be marked
out without leaving any trace on the ground in the middle. The experiment was conclusive. Humans could indeed make all the features
of state-of-the-art crop formations at that time. Eleven of the twelve teams
made more or less impressive formations that followed the set design.
The contest was reported in most of the British newspapers and on radio and TV.
Some people jumped to the conclusion that all crop circles must be hoaxes. The
sceptics were pleased with the outcome, although they had been so sceptical
about the competition itself and had refused to cooperate in its organization.
Ridley’s team was the only one that did not attempt to follow the set design,
producing a question mark instead.
After the competition I took part in many interviews, in which I pointed out
that although the results showed that it was possible to hoax crop circles, it did
not prove that all were hoaxes. The fact that it is possible to forge a ₤50 note
does not prove that all ₤50 notes are forgeries.
The same night that the contest took place, three other crop formations
appeared in fields in southern England. One of them was five miles from West
Since the competition, formations have continued to appear. Although the
numbers have decreased, the designs have become ever more sophisticated,
many of them embodying remarkable geometric constructions. Every year the
Wiltshire Crop Circle Study Group produces a magnificent calendar showing
the best crop circles from the previous year, and I have one on my study wall,
reminding me daily of these extraordinary formations, with their spectacular
designs and dazzling displays of creativity.
Almost everyone now agrees that most crop circles are human made. But
some enthusiasts still believe that a minority are created by non-human
Surprisingly, there was an article about them in the scientific journal
Nature on June 10, 2010, called ‘The Crop Circles Evolves.’
The summary reads:
“A growing underground art movement combines mathematics, technology,
stalks and whimsy.” But even this scientifically acceptable account has not
managed to expel all mystery. The details of the bent stems suggest to the
author of the Nature article that “some patterns may have been sculpted using
microwave generators, such as masers or magnetrons from microwave ovens.”
John enjoyed the continuing evolution of crop circles, their increasing
geometrical sophistication, and the way they continue to defy simplistic
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist and author of Dogs that Know When Their Owners are Coming Home, and Other Unexplained Powers of Animals (1999), a sequel to his best-selling Seven Experiments that Could Change the World (1994).
His most recent book is The Sense of Being Stared At, And Other Aspects of the Extended Mind (Hutchinson 2003).
He lived for a year and a half at the ashram of Fr Bede Griffiths in South India, where he wrote A New Science of Life (Blond and Briggs, 1981). He is also the author of The Presence of the Past (Collins 1988), The Rebirth of Nature (Century, 1990),Trialogues at the Edge of the West with Ralph Abraham and Terence McKenna, (Bear and Co., 1992) and The Evolutionary Mind (Trialogue Press, 1998). His book Seven Experiments that Could Change the World (Fourth Estate, 1994) was voted Book of the Year by the British Institute for Social Inventions.
With Matthew Fox, he is the author of Natural Grace: Dialogues on Science and Spirituality (Bloomsbury, 1996) and The Physics of Angels (Harper Collins, 1996). His book Dogs that Know When Their Owners are Coming Home, and Other Unexplained Powers of Animals (Hutchinson) was published in September 1999, and won the British Scientific and Medical Network Book of the Year Award. In July 2000 he was the H. Burr Steinbach visiting scholar at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in Massachusetts. His most recent book is The Sense of Being Stared At, And Other Aspects of the Extended Mind (Hutchinson 2003). He is currently a Fellow of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, San Francisco. Rupert lives in Hampstead, London, England with his wife, Jill Purce and their two sons. Jill is the pioneer of the international sound healing movement. Website: Jill Purce.
Rupert's website includes articles, research and ongoing research the public can participate in, a free e-newsletter, a cool glossary with definitions of such terms as: dialectical materialism, entelechy, evolution and teleonomy and much more.
Check out more of Rupert's articles here at Satya Center in the Rupert Sheldrake Archive.
(All photos in this article are clip art except for Rupert Sheldrake's photo, which came to us courtesy of the author.)