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The Mysterious Toynbee Tiles

Article #15 • Written by Alan Bellows

In 1992, a chap in Philadelphia by the name of Bill O'Neill starting noticing strange tiles randomly embedded in local roads. 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." They varied a bit in color and arrangement, but they were all made of an unidentifiable hard substance, and many had footnotes as strange as the message itself, such as "Murder every journalist, I beg you," and "Submit. Obey." Some were accompanied by lengthy, paranoid diatribes about the newsmedia, jews, and the mafia.

So Bill started asking around about these tiles, but nobody knew anything about their origin or meaning. So, he created a website devoted to the mysterious tiles, and in doing so learned that it is not just a local phenomenon. 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. To date, about 130 tiles have been discovered. Somehow, someone is managing to embed these tiles into public roads-- some of which are busy 24/7-- without being spotted.

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, not exactly resurrected. There is only one known intersection between the works of Toynbee and Kubrick, and it's pretty circumstantial: Toynbee's writings spoke of a man named Zoroaster who conceived the idea of monotheism, and this name also occurs in the title of the famous 2001: A Space Odyssey theme song; it's entitled "Thus Spoke Zoroaster."

Due to strong similarity in craftsmanship and writing style, these tiles are most likely the work of a single individual (in the interest of conserving slashes and pronouns, we'll assume this individual is a male). Either this man is disturbed, or he has a bizarre sense of humor. He is certainly creative, as the messages' delivery system indicates, and he must be a patient and methodical man to have invested the time in making these 130 or so tiles by hand. And given the diverse locales where the tiles can be found, he has the means and money to travel. Some people also suppose that he is European, given that Kubrick and Toynbee are both English, and because one of the paranoid-ranting plaques indicates that he is/was hiding in Dover, England.

One Toynbee Tile enthusiast has claimed that a freshly laid tile was once found and examined:

The highlight of my search for answers to this mystery occurred one Sunday night of this previous winter. I had gone to my local convenience store for a snack around 4:00 A.M., noticing nothing unusual. On my way home I noticed something unusual in the street. Upon closer inspection, I discovered it to be a "Toynbee Idea" tile - freshly placed and only minutes old. Of course I was beside myself with excitement and I could now see exactly how, and of what materials these tiles are made. (This tile, by the way, is located on 13th. & Arch St. in Philadelphia.) The tiles are just that - tiles....although not the standard vinyl floor tile, as I had suspected. The letters are cut out of a material with, I assume, a higher rubber content than a standard floor tile. The inlay letters seemed to made from a less maleable substance, and in this case were red and yellow. The tile is secured to the street by intricately folded and layered tar paper, glued together. A layer of raw tar seemed to lie beneath the whole tile, anchoring it. The weight of cars, as they run over the tile, forces the layers of tar paper to impregnate the spaces in the cracks of the letters.

The most tantalizing clue as to the source of these tiles was a 1983 newspaper interview with a social worker from Philadelphia, a man named James Morasco, who claimed that Jupiter could be colonized by bringing Earth's dead people there to have them resurrected. When writing an article on the tiles in 2001, one reporter stumbled upon the original 1983 article, found the link intriguing, and tried to call the only James Morasco listed in Philly. A woman who answered said Mr. Morasco couldn't come to the phone because a mysterious ailment had required that he have his voicebox removed. Another reporter writing another story in 2003 tried to call the same man, only to be told that he had died the previous March at age 88, but that he had known nothing about the tiles:

"My husband doesn't know anything about that," she said. "Besides he died in March. But he didn't know anything about it."

Thou dost protest too much? Given the strong ties and strange circumstances, some believe that Mr. Morasco was the responsible party... but there are some problems with the Morasco theory: A) He would have been in his 70s when most of the tiles were placed, and B) some new ones have been installed since his death in 2003.

Another ambiguous Toynbee-2001 link appears in a 1985 play by Pulitzer-prize winning playwright David Mamet. In his "Goldberg Street" collection, he wrote an exchange between a radio talk show host and a caller obsessing over Arnold Toynbee, the movie 2001 and dead people. This play was written seven years before the first Toynbee tile was discovered, but two years after the Morasco article.

Despite finding a few links and some background information, the purpose and message of these tiles remains inexplicable. Did 70-year-old James Morasco install the tiles, then pass the legacy on to another to continue after his death? Was it some disturbed individual who latched onto the theory described in the 1983 article, and acted on his/her own? Or could it be someone who made the bizarre Kubrick-Toynbee link independently? Particularly fitting is the last line of the original 1983 article on James Morasco:

"You may be hearing more from Morasco. And then again, you may not."

Update: Since this article was published one Jon Foy has created a documentary which identifies a possible/probable Toynbee tiles perpetrator.

Article written by Alan Bellows, published on 25 September 2005. Alan is the founder/designer/head writer/managing editor of Damn Interesting.

Article design by Alan Bellows.
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52 Comments
rp2
Posted 19 January 2006 at 11:26 am

it was me, i did them


slappykincaid
Posted 21 January 2006 at 11:54 am

Wow! Whats really weird is that I was just looking at the old damninteresting archives, because I'm reletively new to this site, and wanted to catch up. I found this article, and the name 'Zoroaster' jumped out at me, and a chill went up my spine, because I am now writing a paper on humanism and the painting 'The school of athens' by raphael. Zoroaster is actually picutured in this painting(bottom right, with globe in hand)!


rdsteiner
Posted 22 March 2006 at 09:13 pm

slappykincaid said: "Wow! Whats really weird is that I was just looking at the old damninteresting archives, ... , and the name 'Zoroaster' jumped out at me, and a chill went up my spine, because I am now writing a paper on humanism and the painting 'The school of athens' by raphael. Zoroaster is actually picutured in this painting(bottom right, with globe in hand)!"

Sounds like
"The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon"


HunterKiller_
Posted 13 June 2006 at 02:43 am

How strange. Maybe that guy was onto something, they should try sending some dead people to Jupiter. =)


mensadave
Posted 13 June 2006 at 05:32 am

I believe the music used in the film was called "Thus Spake Zarathustra."


1c3d0g
Posted 13 June 2006 at 06:22 am

Mensadave is right, that's the name of the song (or in the original version "Also Sprach Zarathustra" by Richard Strauss), one of, if not *the* World's most beautiful piece of music ever created.


sulkykid
Posted 13 June 2006 at 07:29 am

1c3d0g said: "Mensadave is right, that's the name of the song (or in the original version "Also Sprach Zarathustra" by Richard Strauss), one of, if not *the* World's most beautiful piece of music ever created."

I believe that Zoroaster and Zarathustra were the same person. Although the musical piece is definitely "Zarathustra". I think that I read somewhere that the name means something like "Keeper of Decrepit camels". I really should do some research, I guess.


kc0dxh
Posted 13 June 2006 at 07:31 am

There is a Toynbe Hall in, I think, London. It is a settlement house. Or was anyway.


Number12
Posted 13 June 2006 at 07:32 am

They are the same individual. Zoroaster is the normal English version, so while Strauss' work is usually referred to by its German title, and in English is generally called "Thus Spake Zarathustra" it is certainly not incorrect to translate it as "Thus Spake Zoroaster."


kc0dxh
Posted 13 June 2006 at 07:36 am

Toynbee even. Link to the settlement house's webpage below.
http://www.toynbeehall.org.uk


sulkykid
Posted 13 June 2006 at 07:56 am

I also find it highly suspicious that a Toynebee Tile enthusiast would find one "freshly placed and only minutes old". Hmmmmm.


schuylercat
Posted 13 June 2006 at 12:34 pm

These are the types of articles that I love. Truly damned interesting, but I cannot for the life of me figure out why. These tiles are curious, sure. The cryptic gabble on them is curious as well. Some person or persons are expending a bit of energy to create and distribute these things.

So – I mean, get a freaking life! Those responsible need…

1 …to be housed in a mental health facility.
2 …to be given basic, clearly worded instructions on how to get a job.
3 …to be seriously bitch-slapped.
4 …all of the above.

And then again…in the back of my mind I’m thinking: “Hmm. You could d something like that! Maybe drawings in sidewalk chalk with big fancy letters that say ‘eat tofu - no butterflies for the Martians!!!’”

So maybe I need…

1 …to be housed in a mental health facility.
2 …to be given basic, clearly worded instructions on how to get a job.
3 …to be seriously bitch-slapped.
4 …all of the above.

Pretty goofy. I love this stuff.


schuylercat
Posted 13 June 2006 at 12:35 pm

Dang, Sulkykid - nailed it! Here's the Wiki:

The name Zaraθ-uštra is probably a Bahuvrihi compound in the Avestan language, of zarəta- "old" and uštra "camel", translating to "having old camels, the one who owns old camels". The first part of the name has also been translated as "yellow" or "golden", from the Avestan zaray, (Modern Persian zærd) giving the meaning "[having] yellow camels". A more romantic, but inaccurate, translation of the name, in the past has been "[bringer of the] golden dawn", based on the mistaken assumption that the second part of the name is a variant of the Vedic word Ushas meaning "dawn". This last translation seems to have derived from a desire to give a more fitting meaning to the prophet's name than "owner of feeble camels."

Now THAT'S a name I'd want to change...


PRiME
Posted 13 June 2006 at 02:18 pm

Hmm someone needs to let this person know that 2001 was just a movie with no factural truth at all ;)

Ell well maybe one day he will figure it out, reminds me of galaxy quest movie. :)


PRiME
Posted 13 June 2006 at 02:22 pm

Oh forgot to mention, I think in 2001 it was a jupitor moon that was inhabited and were the man was resurrected/re-born (or how I saw it, cloned/imitated), not jupitor itself which was just turned into a mini-sun to help support life on its moon(s) ;)


HiEv
Posted 13 June 2006 at 03:39 pm

Having lived in the Philadelphia area for years I'm embarrassed to say that I've seen a few of these but I never really thought about them much. Sometimes we're blind to all of the damn interesting stuff around us. Thanks for the article, and I plan to keep a sharp eye out for them the next time I go downtown.


Opethian
Posted 13 June 2006 at 05:27 pm

Zarathustra... Zathura... Hmmnn... Is there something here or I'm just on a wild goose chase? Either way, this is very interesting and wonder if there are other Toynbee variations out there...


quidnuncquixot
Posted 13 June 2006 at 10:38 pm

"given that Kubrick and Toynbee are both English" Sorry, Kubrick's from Brooklyn, NY, not England. He just lived there a bit when he was older.


rp2
Posted 13 June 2006 at 10:51 pm

This was the article that got me hooked on damn interesting. Glad to see it again.


Rush
Posted 14 June 2006 at 05:55 am

May be multiple copycats. Like "Kilroy was here" during WW2 and afterwards.


Rush
Posted 14 June 2006 at 06:05 am

PRiME said: "Oh forgot to mention, I think in 2001 it was a jupitor moon that was inhabited and were the man was resurrected/re-born (or how I saw it, cloned/imitated"

The Book was Aurthur C. Clarke's 3001 when the body of Frank Poole was recovered floating in space after 1000 years and due to advances in technology can revive him. He later makes contact with the monolith/being/machine previously known as Dave Bowman.

Semper Fidelis


Jeremy
Posted 14 June 2006 at 08:36 am

Ray Bradbury wrote a short story called "The Toynbee Convector", which I believe was first published around the same time these tiles first appeared, but I don't recall it having anything to do with Jupiter or resurrecting dead people, so probably no connection there.

And it is just my uhhh...fertile...imagination, or does this particular tile appear to have a nude woman laying on top of it in a lewd position?
http://www.toynbee.net/images/toynpgh2.jpg


sulkykid
Posted 14 June 2006 at 09:09 am

Jeremy said: "... And it is just my uhhh…fertile…imagination, or does this particular tile appear to have a nude woman laying on top of it in a lewd position?

http://www.toynbee.net/images/toynpgh2.jpg"

I think it is your fertile imagination (maybe).
Note that the link does not work (for me), but you can go to http://www.toynbee.net and find the image fairly easily.


Napoleon Solo
Posted 14 June 2006 at 11:26 am

"Thus Spoke Zarathustra" is also the name of a book by Friedrich Nietzsche, not sure if you already knew that, it might help.

Also, when you started talking about dead people on jupiter something clicked. I don't think this has any bearing on uncovering the mystery whatsoever but in Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk's latest book; Haunted, there is a short story called Obsolete which involves a mass suicide of every person on Earth, because they will be resurrected in the garden of eden on Venus. Well, there you go.


Adam
Posted 14 June 2006 at 09:36 pm

This reminded me of Obey Giant (www.obeygiant.com). It's this campaign that spread mysterious, somewhat ominous propaganda everywhere just to get people thinking and talking. There was no real message, though there does seem to be something anti-establishment about the campaign. One of the original logos depicting Andre the Giant appeared as a logo the player could mark on the wall in Half-Life.


intheknow
Posted 17 June 2006 at 11:07 pm

Obey's anti-establishment. There is a message behind it. If you live in southern california, especially around the valley, you've probably seen the slaps (stickers) of DONE, it's on lamp-posts and the like. Originally, it was just one person putting up the slaps, then it became a group of people, then a mob of people. There's no real message, or maybe there is.


Rain
Posted 18 June 2006 at 08:02 pm

sulkykid said: "I think it is your fertile imagination (maybe).

Note that the link does not work (for me), but you can go to http://www.toynbee.net and find the image fairly easily."

Haha, I do see that.

This really is damn interesting. Somewhat chilling also.


Rain
Posted 18 June 2006 at 08:03 pm

Sorry, that was to Jeremy.


circumstance
Posted 20 June 2006 at 01:08 pm

In high school, a friend and I performed that David Mamet piece. As far as I remember, it was about a crazy man who called into a radio show late at night, going on and on about how the writings of Toynbee, and the movie 2001, contained some secret formula for resurrecting the dead on Jupiter. Essentially exactly what the tiles seem to be claiming.

My guess would be whoever's making these tiles is a crackpot who read that play and believed it.


needles
Posted 22 June 2006 at 02:48 pm

Some possible idea's:

-Why are some letters lower-case?
-In "Kubrick," bric is lower-case. The BRIC (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BRIC) includes Russia (U.S.S.R.) mentioned in some of the tiles.
And all the "i"s are lower-case.
Oh, and obviously the media would be against a crackpot idea of sending dead people to Jupiter to be resurected. (http://www.toynbee.net/images/toynpgh2.jpg)


needles
Posted 22 June 2006 at 06:49 pm

Lots of them say at the bottom "You must make and glue your own tiles!! You!! The media...(unintelligible)...U.S.S.R. (unintelligible)


Kathleen
Posted 02 July 2006 at 08:52 pm

There was a Toynbee tile in the middle of Fifth Street at Walnut in Downtown Cincinnati for a long time. I always wondered what it was but when I'd mention it to people, almost everyone I knew acted like I was crazy and hadn't ever noticed it.


anazgnos
Posted 08 August 2006 at 01:54 pm

"circumstance says:

In high school, a friend and I performed that David Mamet piece. As far as I remember, it was about a crazy man who called into a radio show late at night, going on and on about how the writings of Toynbee, and the movie 2001, contained some secret formula for resurrecting the dead on Jupiter. Essentially exactly what the tiles seem to be claiming.

My guess would be whoever's making these tiles is a crackpot who read that play and believed it."

Hmmm...my first thought was that maybe the play was actually based on something Mamet heard on the radio...maybe Mamet actually heard Morasco on a call-in show. Wonder if anybody's ever asked him about it.


ardna
Posted 30 October 2006 at 08:00 pm

My guess is it's the work of a paranoid lunatic and copy cats. Someone who had a lot of time on their hands, and had seen the 2001 movie made the first tiles. Later someone saw the work, though it was funny and reproduced them elsewhere. The copy cat probably had friends and they all did similar work around the world.

This article couldn't help but remind me of Arthu C. Clarke's "Mysterious World" and "Mysterious Universe" TV series.


unknown
Posted 12 January 2007 at 02:43 am

This theme with Jupiter and resurrection sort of ties in with a transhumanist/science fiction idea that a supercomputer (refered to as a "Jupiter Brain") could be sophisticated enough to simulate intelligence and even "resurrect" the dead by emulating the informational flow of their consciousness or experiences.

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jupiter_Brain


mystupidmouth626
Posted 16 October 2007 at 01:10 pm

Zoroaster was a proponent of monotheism? That's just interesting because Zoroastrianism is the ONLY recognized dualist (dual-theistic?) religion ever believed in. That's an odd connection then. Anyone know about that at all?

On a random quirky sidenote, I just finished the article referencing the singular gender-neutral pronoun (Whne They Became Him) so it made me laugh to read "(in the interest of conserving slashes and pronouns, we'll assume this individual is a male."


Sandy
Posted 30 November 2007 at 09:08 am

I live in Chicago and have been periodically walking over these tiles for years -- I had always wondered what they were! I'm amazed that I found this article and to discover that there are so many more of these tiles around the country (and the world!). Bizarre!


dodothedreamer
Posted 03 February 2009 at 05:45 am

The web site link is now changed to: http://www.toynbee.org/


TaylorRoxs3
Posted 18 April 2009 at 09:03 pm

Lol There is 1 in my small town in NC
Idk who did it but they did it with Spray paint
Prolly cut a box out or something lol.


sulkykid
Posted 19 April 2009 at 08:07 am

the toynbee.com site is dead and the toynbee.org site looks to be devoid of content. Look to that touchstone of everything worth knowing, wikipedia, for reasonable info and live links.


growaliens
Posted 01 July 2009 at 03:29 pm

The lettering is made of Vinyl Composition Tile (VCT) and the background is linoleum, the backing is asphalt crack filler (tar) and tar paper. Enjoy.


Brenda
Posted 05 July 2009 at 01:36 pm

Four tiles have been found in St. Louis (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 07.04.09), two recently covered with asphalt for street improvements in preparation for the 2009 All-Star game. Lost forever. Finders of tiles: please document well before they're gone forever. The referenced article supposes that the tiles are "a mix of asphalt crack filler, glue, and linoleum that are placed on the street and then covered with tar paper. Heat and pressure from vehicle tires meld the tile into the asphalt. As the paper wears away, the message is revealed."


Limemil
Posted 04 August 2009 at 11:44 pm

mystupidmouth626 said: "Zoroaster was a proponent of monotheism? That’s just interesting because Zoroastrianism is the ONLY recognized dualist (dual-theistic?) religion ever believed in. That’s an odd connection then. Anyone know about that at all?

It was the first religion to basically state that there is only one God, thus being monotheistic. Another important concept in it is Good vs. Evil, it sort of introduced that.


sally
Posted 19 March 2010 at 02:31 pm

One of these tiles appeared in Margate, N. J. on or about March 1, 2010. The streets department appeared to be amused.


MacAvity
Posted 20 March 2010 at 12:21 pm

Has anybody yet hypothesized that there was a person, named Toynbee, not necessarily related to Arnold, who did in fact come up with the idea, used in 2001: A Space Odyssey, to resurrect dead humans on Jupiter, but his idea was stolen by Kubrick, and Kubrick got all the credit, fame, and money, and Toynbee was left with no way to prove it had been his idea and get his share of the profits, so he went crazy, and instead of going on some bloody rampage set out to tell the world, in attention-getting arcane medium and grammar, of his role, and thus claim his immortality in association with his idea?

Where the common footnote "LAY TILE ALONE AS HELLIONS AND FEDS INFILTRATE AND HARVEST YOU TO PRISON" fits into that hypothesis, I know not.


PirateLordxX
Posted 27 March 2010 at 01:05 pm

Love the article. Very interesting. I did however wish to point out that the song in 2001 was called "Thus Spake Zarathustra" which references a book by Friedrich Nietzsche. So that Has nothing to do with Toynbee.


patrick47
Posted 12 August 2012 at 11:18 am

why not take the man a bird both of you are bird men and start from there.


SF
Posted 18 November 2012 at 09:36 pm

These tiles may have been made by someone who was paranoid/schizophrenic and or bipolar. He had tried to get his message out the conventional way and people thought he was crazy. He then did the unconventional way with the tiles. He used this method because it confirmed to his mental attitude that something has to be more of a concrete message, something that should be on the road. He or she actually cut these letters out of a stencil of a tile type that was put onto the road with tar paper. Why the road, we don't know.
Justin Duerr really was obsessed with these tiles to find out who the person is who made them, He went through many avenues to find this guy. Even going to a short wave radio workshop. He found a guy who had actually been in contact the guy who was at the top of their list of suspects. Sevy. Interesting.
Here in San Francisco, we have a kind of famous wander who carries a sign down in the Financial District. I have seen this guy since the early nineties, and people say he has been roaming around with a sign even before that. When I first saw him, an Asian guy, young, in a suit and tie with glasses carrying a sign. It made sense at the time. It was about how the government was screwing things up. After years of this, his sign began to make no sense. His signs also talked about space and Jupiter. But not resurrection. I found out he was bipolar and after he lost his job he would roam the streets with this sign about how the government was the problem. The media got a hold of him and paid him to put their ads on the back side of his sign.
I haven't seen him for a couple of years now.


SF
Posted 18 November 2012 at 09:38 pm

SF said: "These tiles may have been made by someone who was paranoid/schizophrenic and or bipolar. He had tried to get his message out the conventional way and people thought he was crazy. He then did the unconventional way with the tiles. He used this method because it confirmed to his mental attitude that something has to be more of a concrete message, something that should be on the road. He or she actually cut these letters out of a stencil of a tile type that was put onto the road with tar paper. Why the road, we don’t know.
Justin Duerr really was obsessed with these tiles to find out who the person is who made them, He went through many avenues to find this guy. Even going to a short wave radio workshop. He found a guy who had actually been in contact the guy who was at the top of their list of suspects. Sevy. Interesting.
Here in San Francisco, we have a kind of famous wander who carries a sign down in the Financial District. I have seen this guy since the early nineties, and people say he has been roaming around with a sign even before that. When I first saw him, an Asian guy, young, in a suit and tie with glasses carrying a sign that made sense at the time. It was about how the government was screwing things up. After years of this, his sign began to make no sense. His signs also talked about space and Jupiter. But not resurrection. I found out he was bipolar and after he lost his job he would roam the streets with this sign about how the government was the problem. The media got a hold of him and paid him to put their ads on the back side of his sign.
I haven’t seen him for a couple of years now."


mmagbee
Posted 20 November 2012 at 10:06 am

I think everyone is WAY overthinking this. The whole Toynbee quote is from a one-act play that David Mamet wrote in 1969.
Here is a link if anyone cares to read it:
http://convozine.com/1883-inside-the-hotdog-fa/5905


TourguideStan
Posted 16 December 2013 at 08:11 am

Many of the tiles are in Manhattan, mostly in Midtown, where I work as a guide. I'm out on the street a lot and have seen many tiles over the years.

One is on 5th Avenue at 53rd on the north side of the intersection.
One is at 5th & 50th, again on the north side of the intersection.
One is at 5th & 48 on the north side of the intersection.
One is on Park at 95th, on the southbound side, on the south side of Park.

There are others. I've been tweeting them under the name TourguideStan, with the hashtag #ToynbeeTiles. Watch for them.
Stan
P.S. I'm unlikely to return to this site, but you can find me on Twitter, where I post photos of New York City.


Cayleigh
Posted 11 January 2015 at 08:46 pm

I got really excited today because I remember reading an article similar to this one and while I was in New York City I stumbled across two while walking in and near time square! It's so interesting!


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