The Toynbee tiles (also called Toynbee plaques) are messages of mysterious origin found embedded in asphalt in about two dozen major cities in the United States and three South American capitals. Since the 1980s, several hundred tiles have been discovered. They are generally about the size of an American license plate, but sometimes considerably larger. They contain some variation on the following inscription:


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.

Claims of Toynbee tile sightings date back to the mid-1970s. A consideration of the frequency of reported sightings points to the likeliness of the tile campaign dating to the mid-1980s. The first known reference to the tiles 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 presumed new tiles considered to be the work of the original tiler 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 suburban Indiana, in Buffalo, New York, and on the West Coast, including San Francisco, California and Roswell, New Mexico. Many older tiles considered to be the work of the original tiler have been eroded by inner-city traffic, but as of 2008 “vintage” tiles remain in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; St. Louis, Missouri; Cincinnati, Ohio; Cleveland, Ohio; and South America, among other locations.

Newer style tiles have been embedded on several major highways, including Interstate 476 in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, and Interstate 95. In June 2007, a tile was found on the city square in Noblesville, Indiana.

About six more were found on Route 1 North bound starting in Drexel Hill in Delaware County going north through Philadelphia in 2007–2008. The plates are much larger than the originals and have red italic writing on them.

People and things referred to
“Toynbee” refers to Arnold J. Toynbee, a famous historian. “Kubrick’s 2001” refers to 2001: A Space Odyssey, co-written and directed by filmmaker Stanley Kubrick.
Commonly, a city will have a couple of large and colorful tiles along with numerous small and simple tiles like this one, spotted just a block from the White House.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.

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, pgs. 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.

A different style of Toynbee tile, found at the corner of 13th and Chestnut Sts. in PhiladelphiaAnother 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 Kubrick’s work—or something greater, to survive.

Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “Jupiter V” contains elements in common with 2001 and mentions Toynbee several times.

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 (inspired by 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 seems flattered by them.

Researchers for the upcoming 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.

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 interpreted as being 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 since of joy over Knight-Ridder as 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 town gloated in joyous fits on how their Soviet pals found a way to turn it into a…

The tiles appear to be the work of a single person, perhaps James Morasco (May 6, 1915 – March 15, 2003), a Philadelphia carpenter who in the early 1980s tried to interest Philadelphia-area newspapers in a similar idea; 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. Until 2007, most were much smaller than “original” tiles. Post-2002 and pre-2007, they also displayed a very different font and styling than the older tiles and tended to leave out words that were found on the originals.

Where the first ones said: TOYNBEE IDEA IN Kubrick’s 2001 RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER


In 2007, tiles have been discovered in Philadelphia that are quite similar to the multi-colored 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.

Theoretically, the method of laying such a tile is simple. Toynbee-tile enthusiast Justin Duerr says that a newly laid tile was once found and examined. This new tile was wrapped in tar paper and placed on a busy street early in the morning. The pressure exerted by automobiles driving over the tile for weeks on end pushes it 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.

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.

The messages on most of the Toynbee tiles are generally not thought offensive. Hundreds of tiles have been destroyed during the course of regular road maintenance. The city of Chicago has declared the tiles “vandalism” and vowed to rid the city of any tiles they find. Municipal officials in Philadelphia, the city with the most tiles, have no comment on the tiles.

A large tile complex, apparently the tile maker’s rant against his enemies, was destroyed when Chestnut Street in Philadelphia was being 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, apparently broken up by traffic-induced surface distortion of the asphalt on which it was laid, which softens during the hot summer.

There is no public or private agency dedicated to conserving Toynbee tiles. Many tiles now exist only as photographs taken before their destruction.

Despite this, the tiles have enjoyed modest attention from American and European media outlets, including coverage from The New York Times , The Chicago Sun Times, and NPR. Philadelphia-based filmmakers Justin Duerr, Jon Foy, Colin Smith, and Steve Weinik have been working on an independent documentary film about the tiles since 2005.