“Fairy Circles”   Professor Robert Plot’s Hypothesis.  Part 2   Modern Interpretation. 

In 1686  Sir Isaac Newton was  44 years old and engaged in his greatest work the ‘Principia’ (published in1687.) His contemporary, Professor Robert Plot .LLD was Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum and Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford. He was one of, if not the first  palaeontologists in that he discovered and published evidence of the first fossil bone now known to be part of a dinosaur.  This was revealed in his book “A Natural History of Oxfordshire” of 1676. 

In 1686 Professor Plot published a further work, “A Natural History of Staffordshire”.  In this book he reported on his investigations of ‘Fairy Rings’, which name would have been apt in the context of his time, when superstition was generally rife and the existence of witches, goblins, elves and fairies was undoubted. This description can now be seen to refer to our modern phenomenon of “Crop Circles”. The professor’s text makes plain that the formations he studied were frequently encountered in the fields of Staffordshire over a period of years, also attested to by his scholarly friends and landowners. The county may have been the equivalent of today's Wiltshire as the contemporary area of concentration of formations, possibly due to the fact that they were seen by the ‘Circle Makers’ to arouse the interest of the county’s inhabitants.

In contrast with modern times, Plot and his fellow academics appear to have taken a very active scientific interest in the phenomenon. . What a contrast to the attitude of most of our modern academic fraternity. 

Note from Brewer’s “Dictionary of Phrase and Fable” published 1880. 

Matthew Hopkins of Manningtree, Essex the ‘Witch- Finder’ of the associated counties of Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk and Huntingdonshire, hanged sixty reputed witches in one year in Essex alone. Dr.Z.Grey, Contempory 1880,  said that between three and four thousand persons suffered death for witchcraft between 1643 and 1661.

How many I wonder, were accused of making crop formations?  

It appears from Professor Plots report, that no firm conclusions were reached regarding a true cause or the meaning behind the ‘fairy rings’. There are no tentative explanations involving Extra Terrestrials, Ley Lines or Plasma Vortices and the possibility of hoaxers being responsible does not seem to have crossed anyone's mind. Of course the world was a very different place then.  Only a privileged few had the resources and time to possibly enact or even investigate such events and the members of this elite were generally well known to each other. It was a very small world,  any odd behavior in the community would have been quickly noticed, and certainly  no educated person would have demeaned himself with any ‘peasant like’  work of  creating  meaningless  formations in grass, meadowland and arable fields.. How would any presumed hoaxers have got around the country side? Hardly to have been on horseback or horse and cart in the dead of night.  

An interpretation with comments, of Professor Plot’s Hypothesis of 1686.

There have been earlier interpretations of The professor’s work namely in the book edited by Ralph Noyes” The Crop Circle Enigma” with a chapter ‘Clutching at Straws’ by Robert Rickard  which was a ‘hatchet job’,   and an account by Mark Haywood in the Winter 1998 edition of The Circular Review. This latter was a factual and valuable article which has not received the attention it has deserved, possibly because of the use of the difficult to read original ‘Olde English’ text, and the deliberate ignoring and down playing of it’s significance by those modern agency’s with a different agenda, much as are still evidently active today. Note Rob Rickard was a founder of’ Fortean Times’ which has been an active debunker of  paranormal sourced claims for  crop formations for decades.  

 Please Note :  The remarks in italics are intended to explain or clarify the meaning of the original text , other remarks in brackets are the Professors own.  Some sentences have been paraphrased in the interests of clarity. 

Fairy Circles. 

“And here perchance by the way, it may be no great digression to enquire into the nature and efficient cause of those rings we find in the grass, which they commonly call “Fairy Circles”; 

Whether they are caused by lightening or are indeed the rendezvous of Witches, or are the dancing places of those little pigmy spirits they call elves or fairies”?. 

“And the rather, because of: 1 A Question ( perhaps by reason of the difficulty ) scarce yet attempted,  and: 2.   Because I met with the largest of their kind (that perchance were ever heard of ), in this County. (of Staffordshire

One of them shown to me in the grounds between Handsworth Church and the Heath  being near Forty yards in diameter, and I was told by that ingenious gentleman, ( one of the most cordial encouragers of this (investigative) work), the Worshipful Sir Henry Gough Knight, that there was one in his grounds , at Pury- Hall  but a few years since, now indeed ploughed up, of a much larger size he believed to be near fifty yards (diameter).  Whereas there are some of them not above two yards diameter: This ( fifty yards down to 2 yards) may be near the two extremes of their magnitude, (in occurrence).     

“Nor is their difference only in the extent of their diameters. They vary also in other respects, though not proportionally so much: for I have always observed that the rims of these circles, from the least to the biggest, are seldom narrower than a foot, or much broader than a yard.  Some (rims) are as bare as a pathway in many parts of them, other (rims) of a russet singed colour, both of these (types) have a greener grass in the middle (of the circle?),  and a third sort ( a rim) of a dark fresh green, the grass within (the middle of the circle) being of a browner colour.  The first kind  (of circular rim) seldom being less than five or six yards in diameter, and the other two being of various magnitudes, and all of these again can be imperfect (part circles) as well as perfect (complete circles).  Some of them (rims) forming three parts of a circle, others being semicircular, some of them quadrants (four fold) , and others sextants (sixfold) of their respective circles.   

 The descriptions in the above paragraphs could easily be relevant to many modern formations. The multi- segmented types described are particularly striking. Also Professor Plot implies that he has seen or has had a great many reports of lots of formations over some years!.  

The Professor then goes on to carry out analysis of the soils beneath the formations and his findings could have been written very recently by modern researchers. 

“I thought fit to examine the nature of the soil under the rims of the circles, especially how it differed from the adjoining earth, and found by digging up several, that the ground under all of them was much looser and dryer than ordinary and the parts interspersed with a white hoar or vinew sic? (filaments), like that in mouldy bread, and of a musty rancid smell but insipid to taste, and this scarce above six inches deep anywhere. The earth below being of its due (normal) consistence and genuine (normal) smell agreeable to (the same as) the rest of the soils thereabouts. 

“ Whence it being equally plain that I was no longer to enquire for the origin either from anything under or upon the ground:- (the Professor has drawn a blank on this cause of the circles), It remained that I should look for some higher principle (other cause), and indeed after mature deliberation I could think of none nearer than the middle region; ( he could think of nowhere better to look than the “Middle Region “ which was the name then given by science to the region between the earth and the heavens),  viz, that they (the circles ) must needs be the effects of lightening, exploding from the clouds most times in a circular form;  perhaps caused by an ancient natural force called ‘fulmen discutiens’ which though of a viscous sulphurous consistence, yet taking fire and violently breaking out from the cloud wherein it was contained, must naturally expand itself every  way obliquely (at an angle)  for the most part in a uniform conical manner, ( see his illustrations Marked 1 2 &3) , and at a certain distance to become a circle and in this form to strike the ground ( thereby creating a circle.  The Professor is theorizing here that a presumed natural force exploding in the clouds projects the circles onto the ground.), as may be seen in arable grounds (crops), but chiefly in wide and open pastures  whether Meadows or Uplands, where trees and hedges interrupt least, and not only in single, but sometimes in a double and treble Circle one within the other as was lately shown to me by my Worthy and Ingenious friend John Priauix M.A. in the field near Oxon and the garden called Jericho. 

They ( the circles ) are rarely also seen of a quadrangular form (square), encompassed within another larger circle whereof there was shown to me no less than two examples  by my Ingenious and observing friends John Naylor and Hugh Todd M.M.A.A. and fellows of the University College in the same St Gile’s fields, which may yet be reconciled to the same Hypothesis ( method of creation described above and also below

The former (i.e. the three ringed circle) proceeding from three different (conical) flashes. the second flash widening the (cone from) the cloud more than the first flash and the third more than the second  so creating the concentric circles. 

The latter (i.e. the circle containing the square) proceeding from the first flash leaving the cloud in a quadrangular (square shape , see his illustration [2] ) and the second ‘after flash’ being in a wider circular form. 

All these Rings and Squares  being greater or less in proportion to the distance of the cloud  from the earth and also the tenaciousness of the matter ( the presumed  substance of the flashes), and all appearing at first of a russet colour, the grass just then being singed by the lightening  The year following, the grass was of a dark and luxuriant green, the earth underneath  being highly improved with a fat sulphurous matter received from the lightening when it was first struck, but not exerting it’s fertilizing quality till some time after.” 

This latter ‘fertilizing’ effect seen by the Professor  seems to accord with the effect produced by modern weed killers such as Monsanto’s “Roundup”. the weed killer sterilizes the soil initially  by killing all organic growth, then after some time  becomes innocuous, the dead matter becomes an effective compost and feeds vigorously any replacement plant life. For similar effects with modern crop circles? See BLT Reports. W C Levinson re increased fertility of seeds from crop formations.    

The professor continues:-

If it be objected (to); that lightening causes these Circles, it must also be allowed that it descends vertically which we know to be seldom or never seen. And that secondly if their origin be ascribed to lightening they ( the circles) must always remain of the same magnitude, never enlarging themselves to a greater diameter than they had at first. Yet we must acknowledge that some of them certainly do. I have not only taken notice of this thing myself but have also had it from some others of unquestionable fidelity that remarked the same, in two of the circles mentioned in this chapter “.   

This phenomenon of additional rings or enlargements of existing circles some time after their first appearance, has often to occurred with our modern formations.. 

It must be answered first that though it be true that lightening indeed seldom descends vertically, yet it is seldom found too, that any of these rings are mathematically round unless they happen to be found on hills or bank sides, which may be obverted in the right angles to any point of the heavens between the Zenith and the Horizon) . Most of the circles being rather of a parabolic figure coming so much nearer to a round shape or receding farther from it, in proportion as the lightening comes forth nearer to or farther away from the zenith. ( i.e. Overhead. ).   

The professor is in effect saying that a truly round circle must come from a directly overhead projection, which can seldom occur as most of them,  in his experience, are not truly round.) 

Whence it comes to pass that when the lightening is exploded (as most frequently it is) in an oblique line ( i.e. at an angle nearer to the horizon), these circles are imperfect (not complete circles) and that there are more semicircles, quadrants and sextants among them than any other form, in proportion to the angle between the  horizon and the zenith at which the lightening breaks forth from the cloud. (paraphrased text). Thus if it proceed from a cloud not over  15 degrees above the horizon the lower part only of the circular explosion will brush the  surface of the earth and will make perhaps only a sextant ( a sixth part) of a circle. If the explosion proceeds at 22 degrees and a half above the horizon it will make a quadrant ( a fourth part) of a circle , if at 45 degrees a semicircle, and so more or less proportionally in the intermediate degrees. 

Professor Plot illustrates the latter hypothesis, see fig [3] , but his theory is flawed . Any circle making force projected at any angle between directly over head, (the zenith ) and the horizontal will produce an ellipse or an ovoid to a greater or lesser extent . Try shining an electric torch directly on a ceiling and then at various angles. There is no angle where such a force would form only part of a figure and skip the presumably level ground beyond that part. At the true horizontal position no figure at all would be produced. But of course Professor Plot would not have had access to a device able to throw a circular light beam such as the modern battery torch with which to do a practical experiment. 

However Professor Plot was undoubtedly confronting the same phenomenon  as we are today and  using the currently available scientific  knowledge in 1686  to try to solve the mystery.  Perhaps he thought he had succeeded and that it was all down to an uncontrolled natural lightening effect. He certainly avoids suggesting that there could have been any intelligence behind the phenomenon . Also, in line with some current thought, he must have had reason to think that the circles were created instantly i.e. in a flash.   His writings suggest that there was, in Staffordshire at least, widespread  local knowledge of frequently occurring circles. The ones apparently ‘burned’ into grassland existed into following years viz.” the grass being singed with the lightening but the year following were of a dark and luxuriant green”.

It was probably the evidence of singeing or burning in the grass formations that, in the Professors mind, would have completely ruled out any possibility of humans being responsible. There were no portable gas or liquid fuel  blow torches or similar heat intensive devices available in his day,  to enable precise patterns to be burned, dense green  grass and plants  are difficult to damage with fire until they are very much dried out!.

It is hard to think that there would not have been other contemporary witnesses writing too. This seems to call for more research into documents of that time, but in the meantime Professor Plot has handed down a very valuable revelation.  The Crop Circles are not a purely modern phenomenon, they were commonly seen 300 years ago and perhaps 300 years or more before then.  Perhaps they have arrived in regular cycles for centuries, maybe  the ‘Circle Makers’ have been  testing us out from time to time, patiently  waiting for us to wake up and respond intelligently to their attempt to communicate. a mind boggling thought. Are we responding intelligently now and if not;  what will happen when we do?  

Jack Sullivan  September 2012..   


Mark Fussell & Stuart Dike

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