It’s a worldwide phenomenon that occurs anywhere where fields of wheat and barley can be found, but the origin of the incredible patterns that emerge overnight across the cereal belt, commonly known as crop circles, remain a mystery despite regular manifestations throughout the summer months, with particular emphasis on Wiltshire and Hampshire in England’s heartland.
Already this year patterns have been reported in the area, with intricate designs appearing in barley fields in Winterbourne Bassett and Broad Hinton, two adjacent villages less than 15 kilometres south of Swindon in Wiltshire.
The latest of these in Winterbourne Bassett, a short hop off the A4361, had tongues wagging due to its similarity to a massive pictogram that appeared in East Field – outside Stanton St Bernard, near Devizes – in July 1990.
That circle achieved huge notoriety by featuring as the front cover of Led Zeppelin’s Remasters three-LP compilation album, although it wasn’t an isolated occurrence that year… being just one example of a sequence of circles that appeared in the region that summer.
This week’s crop circle in Winterbourne Bassett appeared on Sunday and does bear a significant resemblance to the East Field pictogram, while also being very different in many respects.
Measuring about 120 metres long, the crop circle appears to show various stages of an upcoming “annular” solar eclipse, believed to be set to occur on 14 October this year, which will feature in the skies directly above the ancient Mayan heartland of Central America.
An annular solar eclipse occurs when the sun and moon are exactly in line with the Earth, but the apparent size of the moon is smaller than that of the sun, which appears as a very bright ring, or annulus, surrounding the dark disk of the moon.
The largest symbol in the pictogram resembles an ancient Mayan glyph which stands for “solar eclipse” and the design is similar to other “astronomical pictograms” that appeared during the early 1990s, but this year it comes hot on the heels of another similar design identified in northern Italy on 30 May.
The last time a total solar eclipse was experienced by those able to journey into the path of totality – the area traced on the Earth's surface by the moon's shadow, or umbra, during a total eclipse of the sun – was on 2 July 2019, when a stunning eclipse was observed low in the late afternoon sky above northern Chile and Argentina.
A long path of totality was visible predominantly across the Pacific Ocean, but briefly crossed the South American continent just before sunset when almost perfectly clear skies allowed onlookers to witness a dramatic low totality.
Subsequent events on 14 December 2020 and 4 December 2021 could only be seen by a few thousand people due the imposition of Covid restrictions across the globe and in 2022 there were no total solar eclipses for anyone to enjoy, although a couple of partial solar eclipses did occur in Chile and Argentina on 30 April and then in Europe on 25 October.
But this year two solar eclipses were promised, with a totality returning on 20 April followed by an even more spectacular “ring of fire” annular solar eclipse predicted for 14 October.
The October event is expected to see a smaller-than-average new moon move across the sun and cause a “ring of fire” by failing to completely block the sun’s effects. This unusual “annular” event is expected to only last for five minutes at most but will be visible as it sweeps across North, Central and South America.
The spectacular display will be seen in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, but before that it is expected to cross eight US states. Starting in Oregon, a “ring of fire” lasting more than four minutes will be visible from northern California, northeast Nevada, central Utah, northeast Arizona, southwest Colorado, central New Mexico and southern Texas.
The only drawback to this annular solar eclipse is that at no point is it possible to view it with the naked eye since only 91 per cent of the sun will be covered by the new moon, meaning solar filters will have to be worn on eyes and fitted to cameras and other optical equipment.
So the Winterbourne Bassett pictogram seems to be a message that foretells of the October annular solar eclipse, which will no doubt be a spectacular sight for those fortunate to witness it but could there be some greater significance to it?
The village of Winterbourne Bassett is notably the site of a designated scheduled monument, one of "the most impressive’’ of the lesser stone circles found in the area around Avebury in southwest England.
One of the best known prehistoric sites in Britain, Avebury is the site of the largest megalithic stone circle in the world and is a place of great religious importance to contemporary pagans.
The Winterbourne Bassett circle is just 5.5 km to the north of Avebury and when constructed would have been about two-thirds the size of its near neighbour. It was one of many similar monuments constructed throughout much of Britain, Ireland and Brittany during a period estimated to have been from 3,300 to 900 BC, during the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age.
The trend towards stone circles was accompanied by the construction of timber circles and earthen henges and was a clear indication of a growing emphasis on circular monuments during this period of history.
The Winterbourne Bassett site lies on an eastern spur of a low ridge, about a kilometre northwest of the village, although the only remaining physical evidence left is a jumble of stones in a field at the corner of two lanes between the eastern downs and land to its west, with an earthen long-barrow also situated nearby.
The site was designated as a scheduled monument in 1924, with investigations in the 18th and 19th centuries finding evidence of an outer and inner ring. At that time a single central stone was identified, although today six stones are visible but none remain upright.
The fact most stone circles exhibit little evidence of human visitation during the period immediately after their creation suggests they would not have been used for rituals, but may have been created as "silent monuments" to ancestors... with stone believed to have been associated with the dead during that period and wood with the living. However, alternative theories suggest stone may not have been associated with ancestors but with other supernatural entities, such as deities of some kind.
There were several stone circles erected in the area around Avebury, with the incredible site of Stonehenge also located nearby.
The crop circle at Broad Hinton, a few kilometres north of Winterbourne Bassett, also appeared on a Sunday, the last one in May, but is different to its neighbour in that it is circular in design, incorporating a stylized hexagonal shape that sits inside a six-armed pattern that resembles an engine propeller or sword blades that some viewers suggest could be a symbol foretelling of impending solar events.
So, given the historical significance of this part of England and the proliferation of ancient stone circles in the landscape, could the prevalence of the crop patterns go some way towards explaining the reverence our ancestors held for this part of the world and why they built their monuments there?
Are the same forces causing pictograms to appear in the cereal fields here as those that inspired our ancestors to build their stone circles?
The mystery surrounding the creation of crop circles is seen by many as a sign that higher forces, perhaps of extraterrestrial origin, could be responsible and that the designs are a way of informing us about important solar events. Perhaps the monuments of our ancestors were built in response to similar forces or in homage to visitors from space who taught them about the significance of the stars and their procession around our planet?
Clearly someone thinks the annular solar eclipse of 14 October is worth informing people about, could that just be because it’ll make a stunning spectacle in skies from Oregon to Costa Rica or does it represent a more significant event in the history of our planet?
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