The Mystery of The Toynbee Tiles


In 1992 Bill O’Neill starting noticing strange tiles randomly embedded in local roads and streets of Philadelphia. They were generally about the size of a license plate, and each had some variation of the same strange message: “TOYNBEE IDEA IN KUbricK’s 2001 RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPiTER” in a distinct style that artistically resembles stained glass.  They varied a bit in color and arrangement, but they were all made of an unidentifiable clay-like substance.  Some have called the tiles the urban equivalent of crop circles. No one has ever been caught or taken credit for this caper that dates back to at least 20 years.

The tiles, or plaques as some call them, have taken on a certain cult status, and tile aficionados have spent years trying to discover the meaning person or persons behind them.  The tiles all mention “Toynbee,” most likely Arnold J. Toynbee, a religious historian born in England in 1889. Some of the tiles mention Kubrick, the filmmaker responsible for 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was a movie that made implications that a man was reborn on a mission to Jupiter. Many of the tiles look identical, as if made with a cookie cutter. Others change the wording slightly and take on a colorful style of their own. Some include political rants.  Tiles have been known to contain additional messages that delve deeply into paranoia and ambiguity.

Similar tiles have appeared in many US cities, including Washington DC, Pittsburgh, New York City, Baltimore, Boston, and many more. Some have even shown up in South America; in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. Somehow, someone is managing to embed these tiles into public roads, some of which are extremely busy without being spotted.

Some theorize that the messages in the tiles refer to late British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, while Kubrick of course refers to Stanley Kubrick and his film 2001: A Space Odyssey.  “The meaning of the message on the tiles is pretty open-ended,” said Justin Duerr, a Toynbee tile fanatic who is working on a documentary film about them. “You can draw a lot of connections between the two, depending on how far out you want to stretch it.”

The average Toynbee Tile is a license plate-sized piece of art lodged in a busy intersection in the business district of a major US city. However, reported Tiles range in size from a few square inches to several square feet, and show up in a diverse range of locations.

The materials and construction of the tiles remained unknown for years. That they could weather the erosive qualities of inner-city road life make them all the more intriguing, and unique in the world of “tagging”.  The Tiles are now believed to be a combination of ‘true’ linoleum, which is difficult to purchase in the US, tar paper, asphalt crack filler, and an unknown form of glue, all hand-cut and applied to asphalt via the heat of the sun and the pressure of cars running over them, which will eventually wear away the tar paper and reveal their message.

Toynbee Tiles, are part of a worldwide phenomenon.  The Internet is abuzz with speculation about them.  The fact that they are all handmade and strikingly similar leads one to believe that they are the work of a single person who has the wherewithal to travel all over the world to do this, but who?

Here’s what we do know: Someone has somehow been able to embed at least 130 tiles into the asphalt of major intersections in major cities in North and South America over the past 25 years or so, all of which convey a cryptic message about resurrecting the dead on Jupiter.

Who and why are something we might never know.