The Toynbee tiles (also called Toynbee plaques) are messages of unknown origin found embedded in asphalt of streets in about two dozen major cities in the United States and four South American capitals. Since the 1980s, several hundred tiles have been discovered. They are generally about the size of an American license plate (roughly 30 cm by 15 cm), but sometimes considerably larger. They contain some variation on the following inscription:
IN MOViE `2001
ON PLANET JUPITER
Some of the more elaborate tiles also feature cryptic political statements or exhort readers to create and install similar tiles of their own. The material used for making the tiles was long a mystery, but evidence has emerged that they may be primarily made of layers of linoleum and asphalt crack-filling compound.
Articles about the tiles began appearing in the mid-1990s, though references may have started to appear in the mid-1980s.
History and spread
Toynbee tiles were first photographed in the late 1980s, and their first known reference in the media came in 1994 in The Baltimore Sun. However, in 1983, The Philadelphia Inquirer published a story that referenced a Philadelphia-based campaign to resurrect the dead on Jupiter that, while failing to explicitly mention the tiles, bears a striking similarity to the ideas of the tiles themselves.
In the United States, tiles have officially been sighted as far west as Kansas City, Missouri, as far north as Boston, Massachusetts, and as far south as Washington, D.C. Since 2002, very few new tiles considered to be the work of the original artist have appeared outside of the immediate Philadelphia area, although one notable sighting appeared in suburban Connecticut in 2006 and others appeared in New Jersey in 2008. Presumed copycat tiles have been spotted in Noblesville, Indiana, Buffalo, New York, and on the West Coast, including San Francisco, California, Portland, Oregon, and Roswell, New Mexico. Additional tiles were spotted in downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2013 and Detroit, Michigan in 1997. Many older tiles considered to be the work of the original tiler have been eroded by inner-city traffic, but as of 2011[update] older tiles remain in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; St. Louis, Missouri; Cincinnati and Cleveland, Ohio; and South America, among other locations.
On Wednesday June 19, 2013 tiles resembling the Toynbee tiles appeared on a street in Topeka, Kansas. They were removed by the evening of Thursday June 20, 2013.
On Wednesday July 17, 2013 a tile resembling the Toynbee tiles appeared on a street in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Newer style tiles have been embedded on several major highways, including Interstate 476 in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, and Interstate 95. About six more were found on Route 1 North bound starting in Drexel Hill in Delaware County in 2007 and 2008. The plates are much larger than the originals and have red italic writing on them.
People and things referred to
"Toynbee" may refer to historian Arnold J. Toynbee or Ray Bradbury's short story "The Toynbee Convector". "Kubrick's 2001" is thought to refer to 2001: A Space Odyssey, co-written and directed by filmmaker Stanley Kubrick.
The majority of tiles contain text similar to that above, although a second set is often found nearby. Several of these allude to a mass conspiracy between the press (including newspaper magnate John S. Knight of Knight-Ridder), the U.S. government, the USSR (even in tiles seemingly made years after the Soviet Union's dissolution), and Jews. The writing is of a similar style and poor quality.
A tile that used to be located in Santiago de Chile mentions a street address in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: 2624 S. 7th Philadelphia, PA. The current occupants of the house know nothing about the tiles and are annoyed by people who ask, though this is the residence of a named recluse and alleged tile-maker, as shown in the 2011 documentary film Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles.
Toynbee-tile enthusiasts believe that a native Philadelphian created the Toynbee tiles because of the large number that appear in the city, their apparent age, the variety of carving styles, the presence of the "tile creator's screed" (see below), and the Philadelphia address on the Santiago tile.
Interpretations and "The Idea"
According to letters written by the tiler, allegedly uncovered by Toynbee tile researchers in Philadelphia in 2006, "Toynbee's idea" stems from a passage in Arnold Toynbee's book Experiences, pp. 139–142:
Human nature presents human minds with a puzzle which they have not yet solved and may never succeed in solving, for all that we can tell. The dichotomy of a human being into 'soul' and 'body' is not a datum of experience. No one has ever been, or ever met, a living human soul without a body... Someone who accepts—as I myself do, taking it on trust—the present-day scientific account of the Universe may find it impossible to believe that a living creature, once dead, can come to life again; but, if he did entertain this belief, he would be thinking more 'scientifically' if he thought in the Christian terms of a psychosomatic resurrection than if he thought in the shamanistic terms of a disembodied spirit.
Another possible interpretation is that the Toynbee reference comes from the science fiction writer Ray Bradbury's short story "The Toynbee Convector", which alludes to Toynbee's idea that in order to survive, humankind must always rush to meet the future, i.e., believe in a better world, and must always aim far beyond what is practically possible, in order to reach something barely within reach. Thus the message might be that humanity ought to strive to colonize Jupiter—as in Clarke's work—or something greater, to survive.
Another explanation may be that the tiles quote a short play by David Mamet, 4 A.M., written in 1983 and published in the collection Goldberg Street: Short Plays and Monologues in 1985. In the play, a radio host impatiently listens to a caller who contends that the movie 2001, based on the writings of Arnold Toynbee, speaks of the plan to reconstitute life on Jupiter. The radio show host quickly points out the factual errors in the caller's assertion and the logical fallacies of his plan. Mamet has spoken of his belief that the tiles are an homage and seems flattered by them.
Researchers for the 2011 documentary Resurrect Dead claim to have uncovered several pieces of evidence that predate Mamet's play, including a 1980 call by the tiler to Larry King's radio show. Additionally, this documentary cites a newspaper article purportedly published in The Philadelphia Inquirer on March 13, 1983, "Theories: Wanna run that by me again?" by Clark DeLeon, which recounts a conversation between DeLeon and one James Morasco:
- Call me skeptical, but I had a hard time buying James Morasco's concept that the planet Jupiter would be colonized by bringing all the people on Earth who had ever died back to life. Morasco says he is a social worker in Philadelphia and came across the idea while reading a book by historian Arnold Toynbee, whose theory on bringing dead molecules back to life was depicted in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. That's why he's contacting talk shows and newspapers to spread the message. He's even founded a Jupiter colonization organization called the Minority Association.
Therefore, the most likely solution is that Mamet's short play was written based upon somehow hearing about Morasco's concept.
A complex of four tiles was once located at 16th and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia. Consisting of four panels of barely-legible italic printing, this work can be read[by whom?] as a lengthy complaint about the artist's enemies. A possible transcription of its message reads:
- John Knight Ridder is the Philadelphia thug hellion Jew who'd hated this movements guts- for years- takes money from the Mafia to make the Mafia look good in his newspapers so he has the Mafia in his back pocket. John Knight sent the Mafia to murder me in May 1991 [illegible] journalists [illegible] then gloated to my face about death and Knight Ridder great power to destroy. In fact John Knight went into hellion binge of joy over Knight-Ridder's great power to destroy.
- I secured house with blast doors and fled the country in June 1991.
- NBC attorneys journalists and security officials at Rockefeller Center fraudulently under the "Freedom of Information Act" all [illegible] orders NBC executives got the U.S. federal district attorney's office who got FBI to get Interpol to establish task force that located me in Dover England.
- Which back home Inquirer got union goons from their own employees union to [illegible] down a "sports journalist". Who with ease bashed in lights and windows of neighborhood car- as well as men outside my house. They are stationed there still waiting for me.
- NBC CBS group "W" Westinghouse, Time, Time Warner, Fox, Universal all of the "Cult of the Hellion" each one were Much worse than Knight-Ridder ever was[,] mostly hellion Jews.
- When K.Y.W. and NBC executives told John Knight the whole coven gloated in joyous fits on how their Soviet pals found a way to turn it into a...
The reference to resurrecting dead on planet Jupiter could be a reference to the plot of the film 2001, in which hibernating astronauts who had secret training were to be revived upon arrival at Jupiter. "John Knight" may be a reference to American newspaper publisher John S. Knight, and K.Y.W. may refer to KYW-TV.
The tiles appear to be the work of a single person, initially thought to be James Morasco (May 6, 1915 – March 15, 2003), a Philadelphia carpenter. Morasco would have been in his 70s when most of the tiles were laid. Morasco died in 2003, but new tiles have since been seen in Philadelphia.
In 2003, Kansas City Star writer/editor Doug Worgul discovered a "Toynbee Tile" at the corner of 13th and Grand in downtown Kansas City. He wrote about the Kansas City Toynbee Tile and the worldwide Toynbee Tiles mystery in an article published on The Star's website. The article has been cited frequently in subsequent articles about the Toynbee Tile phenomenon. In a telephone interview Worgul spoke with a woman who was the widow of a James Morasco. The woman was evasive on the subject of the tiles. Worgul used his knowledge of the Toynbee Tiles as the basis for a character in his 2009 novel Thin Blue Smoke (Macmillan Publishers).
The 2011 documentary film Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles presents evidence that the tiler was reclusive Philadelphia resident, Severino “Sevy” Verna, who used the name "James Morasco" as an alias. Verna purportedly placed the tiles through a hole in the floor of his car while broadcasting a message via short wave radio about his theories.
Between 2002 and 2007, many new tiles displayed a very different font and styling than the older tiles and tended to leave out words that were found on the originals: "raise" is often substituted for "resurrect", and prepositions are frequently omitted.
Beginning in 2007, tiles were discovered in Philadelphia that are quite similar to the original tiles, leading some to believe that everything has been the work of the same person throughout the life of the tile phenomenon. The font and message are the same as the old ones, and the subtext is a return to some of the older ideas as well. These tiles were glued with a thicker layer of asphalt glue/sealant than older ones.
Toynbee-tile enthusiast Justin Duerr claims to have once found and examined a newly installed tile. This new tile was wrapped in tar paper and placed on a busy street early in the morning. From this find and other evidence, Duerr believes that the pressure exerted by automobiles driving over the tile for weeks on end pushes the tile into the road surface. Eventually, the tar paper wears away, exposing the message.
A Toynbee-tile enthusiast website reported a tile found in Pittsburgh that included deployment instructions, which the reader transcribed as "linoleum, asphalt glue (?) in several layers, then placing tar paper over it so that car wheels won't mess it up, and apparently the heat of the sun on the tar paper will bake it into the street". This tile was located near the Pittsburgh Hilton, and has since been paved over.
Destruction, conservation, and public acknowledgment
Tiles that are located in the middle of busy streets and highway on- and off-ramps tend to wear away quickly and also can become victims of resurfacing; smaller tiles and those located close to pedestrian crosswalks tend to be in better condition.
Hundreds of tiles have been destroyed during the course of regular road maintenance. The city of Chicago has declared the tiles "vandalism" and removes any tiles that it finds, considering them to be "no different than graffiti".
A large tile complex, the tile maker's apparent rant against his enemies, was destroyed when Chestnut Street in Philadelphia was repaved. One tile located at the corners of Talcahuano and Santa Fé streets in Buenos Aires, Argentina, since at least 1996 is damaged and unreadable.
There is no public or private agency dedicated to conserving Toynbee tiles. Many tiles now exist only as photographs taken before their destruction. The tiles have enjoyed attention from American and European media outlets, including from The New York Times, The Chicago Sun Times, Spiegel Online, and NPR. In 2011, Philadelphia-based filmmakers Justin Duerr, Jon Foy, Colin Smith, and Steve Weinik released Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, an independent documentary film about the tiles. The film was selected for the 2011 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Documentary category, and Foy won the category's Directing Award.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Toynbee tiles.|
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- Master site for Toynbee tiles (archived on Wayback Machine), includes list of all known tiles, by city, as of 2003
- Archived copy of the site about the Brazilian tiles
- "An Asphalt Mystery Examined", April 25, 1999, The New York Times
- 'Toynbee Tiles' Mystery Resurrected in Philly, September 23, 2006, NPR Weekend Edition
- "Space Oddity", Kansas City Star, September 6, 2003
- Resurrect Dead web site
- Steve Weinik's page
- Flickr: Photos tagged with "toynbee"
- Complete text of 4 A.M. by David Mamet
- "Mystery tiles in St. Louis covered in asphalt", July 4, 2009, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (via stltoday.com)
- 2010 Folha.com article
- Spiegel Online (SPON) article about the Toynbee Tiles (German)