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 cities. 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 initially unknown, 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.
- 1 History
- 2 Interpretations
- 3 Creator
- 4 Usage
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 Further reading
- 8 External links
Toynbee tiles were first photographed in the late 1980s, and their first known reference in the media came in 1994 in The Baltimore Sun. A 1983 letter to The Philadelphia Inquirer referenced a Philadelphia-based campaign with themes similar to those mentioned in the tiles (e.g., resurrecting the dead on Jupiter, Stanley Kubrick, and Arnold J. Toynbee) but did not refer to tiles.
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 York. 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 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 June 19, 2013, tiles resembling the Toynbee tiles appeared on a street in Topeka, Kansas. They were removed by the evening of the next day. Less than a month later, on July 17, 2013, a tile resembling the Toynbee tiles appeared on a street in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Newer tiles have been embedded on several major highways, including Interstate 476 in Delaware County, and on Interstate 95. About six more were found on U.S. 1 northbound 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
In a documentary film about the tiles, Justin Duerr assumes that "Toynbee" refers to the 20th century British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, and that "Kubrick's 2001" is a reference to the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film co-written and directed by filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, about a manned mission to Jupiter. The toynbee.net website speculates that Toynbee refers to Ray Bradbury's short story "The Toynbee Convector".
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", and the Philadelphia address on the Santiago tile.
Arnold J. Toynbee's "The Idea"
According to letters written by the tiler, allegedly uncovered by Toynbee tile researchers in Philadelphia in 2006,[dead link][unreliable source?] "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 and 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 based on Larry King 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 described it as "the weirdest thing that ever happened".
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 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.
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.[original research?]
The tiles appear to be the work of a single person, thought by Justin Duerr to be reclusive Philadelphia resident, Severino “Sevy” Verna (May 6, 1915 – March 15, 2003), who used the name "James Morasco" as an alias. Morasco was a Philadelphia social worker who would have been in his seventies when most of the tiles were laid. Morasco purportedly placed the tiles through a hole in the floor of his car while broadcasting a message via short wave radio about his theories.
In 1983, Morasco contacted Philadelphia newspapers with his theory of colonizing Jupiter with dead inhabitants of Earth, and claimed to have come across the idea while reading a book by historian Arnold Toynbee. In a letter to The Philadelphia Enquirer, Morasco wrote how Toynbee's book contained a theory on bringing dead molecules back to life, and that this was later depicted in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In 1996, Kansas City Star editor Doug Worgul discovered a "Toynbee Tile" at the corner of 13th and Grand in downtown Kansas City. Investigating the story seven years later, the tile was still there. Worgul learned that the street had last been resurfaced in 1996. Comparing the tile to those in other cities, a local police detective felt that "clearly it was created by the same hand", and concluded that despite referring to a "movement", the creator was acting alone.
When Worgul called the only James Morasco in the Philadelphia telephone book, he was told by the man's wife that James Morasco had died in March that year. When asked about the tiles, Morasco's widow said that her husband "didn't know anything about it". Worgul doubted that this was the tile maker.
New tiles have since been seen in Philadelphia. 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 or 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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- "An Asphalt Mystery Examined", April 25, 1999, The New York Times
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- Archived copy of the site about the Brazilian tiles
- Flickr: Photos tagged with "toynbee"