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The mysterious Toynbee Tiles: Cryptic messages involving Sci-Fi, conspiracy & philospohy

Boban Docevski

The mystery of the so-called “Toynbee Tiles” began in the mid-1980s when they started to appear on the streets of Philadelphia. The tiles usually contained a variation of the following message: TOYNBEE IDEA / IN MOVIE `2001 / RESURRECT DEAD / ON PLANET JUPITER. At first, only a few people noticed them, but as they began to appear all over the country, the curiosity about them grew. The first article on this subject, titled “The word on the street turns cryptic,” appeared on October 19, 1994, in The Baltimore Sun:

“The cryptic words are on at least seven street markers on Calvert and other streets in downtown Baltimore. These aren’t manhole covers or spray-painted graffiti; these are shoe-box-sized markers with black engraved letters. They’re permanent.”


One of the three Toynbee Tiles on the Avenue of the Arts section of Broad Street in Philadelphia. Photo credit

From the article, it appears that back then, people in Baltimore weren’t aware that the tiles appeared in other places also. Later researchers found out that tiles have been spotted all across the USA; from Kansas City, Missouri on the West, to Washington, D.C on the South, and up to Boston, Massachusetts on the North. Tiles have also been located in South America, in cities such as Santiago de Chile and Buenos Aires.

According to Toynbee Tiles enthusiasts, the tiles are made of linoleum and asphalt glue in several layers which were covered with tar paper for protection. Eventually, the heat of the sun “baked” the tiles into the streets. Since their first appearance, mystery-lovers have been trying to understand their meaning. So what is the message (if there is any at all) that these tiles want to convey?

Most of the researchers and enthusiasts agree that the “Toynbee” mentioned in the text is almost certainly the British historian Arnold J. Toynbee. The “Kubrick’s 2001” refers to the famous 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey directed by Stanley Kubrick, based on the book by Arthur C. Clarke.

Some also speculate that the “Toynbee” refers to Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Toynbee Convector.” A question remains how all of these references come together in the tiled message?


Arnold J. Toynbee / Photo credit

First of all, let’s look at Arnold J. Toynbee and his “Idea.”Toynbee was most renowned for his 12-volume life-work named “A Study of History.” In those books, he attempted to explain what makes civilizations rise and fall. One of the “ideas,” he talked about was regeneration, or in other words, life after human life. Here is a passage from his book “Experiences“:

“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 theory suggests that the tiles have something to do with Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Toynbee Convector.” here Bradbury agrees with Toynbee’s idea that humanity must aim for the distant future in order to survive and be remembered. In this context, the message might suggest that we should try to colonize Jupiter just as in Kubrick’s 2001.


Three tiles appear on this picture taken in downtown Washington, D.C. The bottom picture is a close up of the tile that mentions the USSR. Photo credit

Besides the philosophical relation between Toynbee and 2001: A Space Odyssey, there’s one more obvious connection with Arthur C. Clarke’s work; Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “Jupiter V” has similarities with “2001” and actually mentions Toynbee. Maybe the author of the message got the inspiration from this story.

On some locations, additional tiles have appeared with an even more cryptic message. The message speaks about some kind of conspiracy theory that involves newspaper magnate John S. Knight of the Knight-Ridder, the US government, the USSR, and Jews.

One of the Toynbee Tiles on the Avenue of the Arts section of Broad Street in Philadelphia. Photo credit

The books relations, Toynbee’s work, and few other small clues are the only things that are certain in this story, but the question remains who made the tiles and why. Some researchers believe that the mystery predates the tiles. In 1983 a man that introduced himself as James Morasco called various talk shows and newspapers and presented his weird theory.

He spoke about colonizing Jupiter with all of the dead people from earth and mentioned that he got the idea while reading a book by Arnold Toynbee. The Philadelphia Inquirer even made an interview with him, in which he claimed that he founded an organization called “Jupiter colonization organization.” Could this be the man behind the messages?

A different type of Toynbee tile (the corner of 13th and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia)

In 2003, Doug Worgul a journalist from the Kansas City Star contacted the only person named James Morasco in the Philadelphia phone book. He found out that he was a carpenter that died the same year aged 88. His wife claimed that he wasn’t the person that made the tiles.

There is one more clue that led people to Philadelphia, one that seems to be closer to the truth. One of the tiles in Santiago de Chile had a street address on it: 2624 S. 7th Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Although the current occupants didn’t know anything about the tiles, it turned out that the former resident was a loner who lived a strange and secluded life.


One of the Toynbee Tiles on the Avenue of the Arts section of Broad Street in Philadelphia. Photo credit


In 2011, Justin Duerr made a documentary called Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles. In his movie he follows the clue and concludes that the tiles were made by one man; a Philadelphia resident called Severino “Sevy” Verna.

Read another mystery story from us:The Tunguska Event: the most powerful explosion in documented history that still remains a mystery

Duerr also believed that he used “James Morasco” as an alias. The movie also explains the method that Verna used for placing the tiles. Allegedly, he put them through a hole in the floor of his car and broadcasted his theories using a short wave radio while driving around the city.

Boban Docevski

Boban Docevski is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News