By Neil Leighton
BBC News Online
An elaborate pattern in flattened crops in a Wiltshire field has sparked fresh debate over one of rural Britain's most perplexing mysteries - crop circles.
The formation, thought to be as long as a football pitch, appeared in a field near Silbury Hill over two nights at the beginning of August.
Some say the pattern is made by mysterious forces and features symbols from the ancient Mayan civilisation which mark the beginning of a new world order.
Others believe it is made by commercially-minded 'landscape artists'. The only 'new order', these sceptics say, will be from publishers wanting photographs of the design.
So who is right? Is it possible that someone or thing is trying to communicate with us using imagery from a culture more than 1,000 years old.
'A new era'
Or is this just the latest example of landscape art that will be displayed on the pages of books and glossy magazines?
Francine Blake, a crop circle expert from Wiltshire, believes the crop formation indicates the world is going to change dramatically.
"The Moon has a cycle around the Earth, the Earth has a cycle around the Sun, the Solar System has a cycle in the Milky Way," Ms Blake says.
"That [the galaxy cycle] takes 26,000 years, and this particular calendar is coming to the end of that cycle.
"That long cycle ends in 2012 - it's the end of a cycle, the end of a time. A new era is starting for the solar system."
Ms Blake likens the changes ahead to that of the fall of some of the great empires.
"Just like the era for the Romans stopped and something else started, we are going from era to era and this is the end of one of them," she said.
Scientists have examined crop circles and found anomalies
Crop circles have become a common sight in Britain since the 1970s, when they began to appear in significant numbers in fields, mainly in the south of England.
There is widespread debate over when the first crop circle appeared. Some experts say the first sighting was in Lyon in 815AD.
Others refer to a 17th Century legend called the 'Mowing of the Devil', when a devilish entity visited a farmer's field and trampled down the crops in a circle.
Modern day incidents range from simple circles of flattened crops, to intricate patterns and complex shapes, similar to the one at Silbury Hill
Scientists have examined grain stalks and soil inside circles and found anomalies. For example, they say they have found more magnetic iron compounds in soil inside the circles than outside.
But Ray Cox, chairman of the Centre for Crop Circle Studies, says all but the most simple patterns are created by humans.
"We started out studying the subject from a scientific angle - and there is still a mystery," he said.
"We still don't know their origin. They go back in decades, centuries, but these have been simple round circles, maybe with a ring round them.
"You didn't get the elaborate ones in years gone by. These have only happened since the 1980s."
Mr Cox puts the Wiltshire design down to the work of crop circlers or landscape artists.
And it appears it is not a case of just sneaking out into the local farmer's field armed with planks of wood, rope, and rollers to create this 'art'.
Some crop circlers are far more sophisticated, and more commercially minded, even using computers to design their intricate patterns.
Such is the excitement and enthusiasm for these swirls, whorls and Mayan features, that genuine crop circles often get overlooked, the chairman said.
"You don't get many these days," Mr Cox said.
"There is no point photographing these simple circles because the big and pretty patterns look better and are more saleable as posters, calendars, books and postcards."
Mark Fussell, who runs the Crop Circle Connector website and makes DVDs of crop circles, believes whatever the cause, the designs should be appreciated as works of art.
"There have been ones that are better - there was an 'alien disc' two years ago," he said.
"There have always been really good ones each season.
"These circles are much better than some of the junk in the Tate - some of the stuff they call 'art'."
'Unfair and irresponsible'
Art or a mysterious forces? It seems after two decades of ever more sophisticated designs, the crop circle community remains divided over this rural 'phenomenon'.
But throughout the debate, there is one point on which everyone agrees: these elaborate patterns can be a dramatic and fascinating addition to the natural landscape.
Everyone, that is, except the farmers whose crops are crushed to make the circles.
"Creating crop circles is akin to trampling over someone's back garden," a National Farmers' Union spokesperson said.
"It is unfair and irresponsible. Crop circlers seem to forget that they are damaging someone else's property and there are financial implications."