Online paranormalists quickly devised all manner of theories to explain the discoveries, by far the most popular being that they were beamed down by aliens in a bid to communicate with Earth. The Utah monolith’s disappearance, 10 days after discovery, prompted yet more speculation (authorities say it was stolen by an “unknown party”). As ever, the truth was rather more mundane: within a few weeks, most were claimed by conceptual artists, hoaxers or designers looking to boost their profile. Many gave video evidence to prove it really was their doing.

But the willingness of so many people to travel hundreds of miles for what is essentially a sheet of metal raises a curious question: why, even as science is unravelling the mysteries of our planet and the monoliths are revealed as an elaborate human stunt, why does the suggestion of extraterrestrial mystery still prove so alluring?

“It’s something else to talk about in the year of Covid,” says Tom Dunford, the 29-year-old designer responsible for the Isle of Wight monolith, with a shrug. “If I’d have known that it was going to be such a sensation I would have built it out of more robust materials, but I honestly thought it would be stolen within an hour,” he tells me over the phone from his home on the island, where he lives with his fiancée.

Dunford’s company, The Meeting Pod, specialises in futuristic-looking office furniture, and his friend sent him a news story about the Utah monolith, with the words: “I think you’re the guy for this.” Dunford got to work in his studio, affixing a Perspex mirror sheet to a timber frame and using design software to calculate dimensions. At 3am on December 6 he drove with his sister and a friend to the beach, near the island’s western tip. After parking, they quickly turned off the van’s lights to avoid attention.

“It was quite tricky to not make any noise, I felt like I was going to rob a bank or something. I’d checked the weather and tides, because I was really scared the tide would come in,” he recalls. After anchoring the pillar in a hole, they made sure to remove any footprints in the sand to boost its paranormal credentials.

The next day, social media went crazy with photographs of the structure, and it was soon covered by outlets across the world (Dunford had expected it to make the local newspaper, at most). He made the mistake of posting a photo to his Instagram; some of his followers worked out he was responsible, and journalists were soon haranguing him to know if he was the creator. He came clean in an interview on local radio.

If the fad continues, monoliths could well fill the gap in the public imagination left by crop circles, which became the stuff of rural legend in the Eighties and Nineties, after farmers in south west England – notably, the same folklore-rich region of the country as the recent monolith craze – began to discover unexplained and often elaborate patterns in their canola, barley and wheat fields. They later spread across Europe and the US.

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