updated 6/13/2012 3:49:49 PM ET 2012-06-13T19:49:49

Researchers believe a crop circle pattern that appeared in the small town of Bracciano, Italy, a few weeks ago contained a complex diagram of solar eclipses — perhaps demonstrating that its makers had an advanced knowledge of Earthly astronomy.

A woman in Bracciano was awakened May 20 by an earthquake and could not return to sleep; at dawn she noticed a spiral pattern laid out in a nearby wheat field. The crop circle drew curiosity around the world, as well as attention from so-called "cereologists" — crop circle enthusiasts — who offered various theories and opinions about the pattern's origin and meaning.

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One Australian crop circle researcher, Horace Drew, wrote on his website that "the new crop picture at Braccione, Italy, appeared close to the time of an annular solar eclipse " on May 20, and he offered an analysis of the pattern, explaining its "apparent scientific symbolism in terms of eclipse astronomy."

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He wrote that the "cycle of eclipses will begin in one polar region on Earth, whether North or South pole, then will spiral down and out across the equator, eventually spiraling back into the opposite polar region thousands of years later. Likewise, the Bracciano crop picture shows a long two-turn spiral, moving outward from a broad flattened center. Whoever designed this particular crop picture, then laid it out carefully in a rural field, seems to have possessed a great deal of technical knowledge, beyond that of an ordinary field artist"  –  in other words, beyond that of a hoaxer.

Could aliens be demonstrating their advanced knowledge of our eclipse system through spirals in wheat fields? [ 10 Paranormal Videos Debunked ]

Possibly, but it seems more likely that the "eclipse astronomy" lies in Drew's imagination. He begins with the assumption that the pattern has a connection to the eclipse, and claims that if you diagram the pattern of eclipses over thousands of years (from one specific, arbitrary point of view), that pattern generally resembles the spiral pattern found in the Italian crop circle. He then assumes that this eclipse information must have been intentionally created by intelligences far beyond ordinary hoaxers.

While it's an interesting idea, even a child can draw a spiral without mastering "a great deal of technical knowledge" about eclipses. Several other factors cast doubt on a connection between the crop circle and the eclipse. For one thing, despite claims by Drew and other researchers, the crop circle did not in fact appear "close to the time" of the eclipse  – nor even on the same day.

The crop circle was apparently created the evening of May 19 or early in the morning of May 20. However, the best place for seeing the eclipse was Albuquerque, N.M., at about 7 p.m. local time on May 20 — which would be 3 a.m. in Italy the following day, May 21. So the crop circle was actually created a day or more before the eclipse — not at the same time. [ Photos: Mysterious Objects Spotted on the Moon ]

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Furthermore, the eclipse was not visible in Bracciano or anywhere else in Italy (nor anywhere else in Europe). The path of the eclipse ranged from China and moved eastward across the Pacific Ocean to the United States. Why would intelligent alien (or unknown cosmic) forces create a pattern in wheat linked to a solar event that no one in the country could even see? It would be like interpreting a crop circle pattern in sub-Saharan Africa as a description of the northern lights in the Arctic: It's possible, but makes no sense.

Crop circles act as giant Rorschach tests, allowing people to interpret whatever they wish in them. This case is also a good example of how people find significance in coincidences. Even if Drew were correct in relating the design to the eclipse, hoaxers have been known to insert images and concepts from science in the patterns. For example, in June 2010, hoaxers created a 300-foot pattern of circles and lines in a farmer's field in the English countryside. One crop circle researcher said the pattern contained a hidden code for a complex mathematical equation called Euler's Identity. And so it did; in fact a mathematician at University College London noted an error in the equation and found some very human humor (a "hi" message) in the supposedly scientifically advanced alien pattern.

There are many theories about what creates crop circles, from aliens to mysterious vortices to wind patterns, but they all lack one important element: solid evidence. The only known cause of crop circles is humans. Though some experts claim that crop circles have been reported for centuries, in fact they date back only about 30 years, created by two British hoaxers (and others who later copied their works).

Ironically, Drew and other crop circle experts may have been partly right about one thing. Though the Bracciano crop circle was not made during the annular eclipse (nor does the pattern accurately depict Earth's eclipses), it was done at the same time as a relevant astronomical phenomenon. It was created during a new moon, which offered ideal cover of darkness for hoaxers to create nighttime mischief.

Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and investigated crop circles in his book Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.

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