One of the earliest reports was in Lyon in 815 AD, and a late 16th Century woodcut depicts the devil mowing a field into patterns. They began to appear in significant numbers in the fields of southern England in the mid-1970s. Early circles were quite simple, and simply appeared, overnight, in fields of wheat, rape, oat, and barley. The crops are flattened, the stalks bent but not broken.
As the crop circle phenomenon gained momentum, formations have also been reported in Australia, South Africa, China, Russia, and many other countries, frequently in close proximity to ancient sacred sites. For the thousands reported every year, the vast majority go completely undetected. Most of the complex formations occur in the United Kingdom and they are also more likely to be detected because of the country's smaller land mass.
Over the last 25 years, the formations have evolved from simple, relatively small circles to huge designs with multiple circles, elaborate pictograms, and shapes that invoke complex non-linear mathematical principles. Since the early 1990s, however, the phenomenon has grabbed world attention, as the formations evolved into enormous, increasingly mathematically complex and perfectly executed shapes appearing in fields, often near the sacred sites of Wiltshire.
The largest to date, a perfectly formed spiral formation 244 metres in diameter, composed of 409 circles covering almost the entire field, appeared overnight on a rainy night at Milk Hill in Wiltshire Aug. 12, 2001.
The movie Signs, starring Mel Gibson, while universally scorned by serious crop circle researchers, nevertheless renewed interest in crop circles after years of the phenomenon being dismissed in the media as a sophisticated hoax, following the announcement of two elderly landscape painters named Doug Bower and Dave Chorley who confessed in 1991 that they had been making crop circles in English grain fields since the 1970s after reading about the Tully, Australia Saucer Nest of 1966. The truth is that they were both unable to draw a decent crop circle in daytime and to remember the exact location of their exploits.
Since the early 1990s the UK arts collective founded by artists Rod Dickinson and John Lundberg (and subsequently includes artists Wil Russell and Rob Irving), named the Circlemakers, have been creating some crop circles in the UK and around the world both as part of their art practice and for commercial clients.
On the night of July 11–12, 1992, a crop-circle making competition, for a prize of several thousand UK pounds (partly funded by the Arthur Koestler Foundation), was held in Berkshire. The winning entry was produced by three Westland Helicopters engineers, using rope, PVC pipe, a trestle and a ladder. Another competitor used a small garden roller, a plank and some rope.
In 2002, Discovery Channel commissioned five aeronautics and astronautics graduate students from MIT to create crop circles of their own, aiming to duplicate some of the features claimed to distinguish "real" crop circles from the known fakes such as those created by Bower and Chorley. The creation of the circle was recorded and used in the Discovery Channel documentary Crop Circles: Mysteries in the Fields.
Formations are now regularly commissioned by multinational companies, advertising agencies and the media. For instance, a 200 foot replica of the face of the Japanese cartoon character Hello Kitty was pressed into a field in Wiltshire, England in 2004. Nike, Pepsi, BBC1, Greenpeace, Sky, Weetabix, Big Brother, Mitsubishi, Thompson Holidays and O2 have also paid circle-makers tens of thousands of pounds for a night's work. The Sun paid for one to publicise its campaign to bring the Olympics to Britain.
While the relationship between crop artists and cereologists is uneasy, the relationship between artists and farmers is mutually beneficial. Farmers provide the canvas, the artists bring in the tourists. The circles are a major tourist attraction, spawning bus tours, daily helicopter tours, T-shirts, books, and other trinkets. The circles draw people who believe the formations have a unique energy. They visit the formations as a sort of spiritual Mecca, to meditate, pray, dance, and commune with worldly spirits. Farmers frequently charge a small fee or have a donation box for people who want to enter the circles. In 1996 a circle appeared near Stonehenge and the farmer set up a booth and charged a fee, collecting 30,000 pounds (U.S. $47,000) in four weeks. The value of the crop had it been harvested was probably about 150 pounds ($235).