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Secret in the Streets

For decades, strange plaques called Toynbee tiles have appeared like crop circles throughout the cities of the world.

toynbee tiles
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The next time you’re standing at the corner of a busy city street, look down – you just may spot a mysterious message emblazoned in the asphalt:

IN MOViE ‘2001

For decades, these strange plaques have appeared like crop circles throughout the cities of the world. They’re known as Toynbee tiles and while numerous conspiracy theories exist, the truth behind the markers remains a mystery.

Sightings of the tiles date back to the 80s and the first official report occurred in 1994, when a journalist for The Baltimore Sun described several strange markers etched into the intersections of downtown Baltimore. Since then, the shoebox-sized linoleum plaques – which are literally baked into the street using tar paper and the pressure of traffic – have popped up in Boston, New York, San Francisco, Topeka, even Buenos Aires and Santiago, Chile.

Since the first tiles began to pop up, step-by-step guides on how to create these asphalt mosaics have appeared on the internet, making it easy for copycats to create their own Toynbee Tiles, or Toynbee Plaques as they’re also known. One organization called The House of Hades has created hundreds of Toynbee tiles using the same materials as the others. The use of their organization name on these tiles disconnects them from the Toynbee originals. 

Just where do these messages come from? What do they mean?

Toynbee Tile in D.C.
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  • Washington, D.C.

Some believe that the opening of the inscription, ‘Toynbee Idea’, is a reference to Arnold Toynbee, a British historian and philosopher of history. Much of Toynbee’s work was based around the growth and subsequent fall of civilizations. Toynbee also theorized that dead particles could be resurrected— which could be a clue to the third line of the tile: Resurrect Dead. 

Another theory surrounding the tiles' message thinks that the four lines of text could be an anagram. If it is, however, none of the rearranged messages have been clear enough to crack the original Tiler’s message.

Toynbee Tile in Cleveland
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  • Cleveland.

A 2011 documentary called Resurrect Dead traces the Toynbee phenomenon to Philadelphia, a city with an unusually high number of tiles. According to the film, in 1983, The Philadelphia Inquirer got a phone call from an anonymous source, claiming the dead could be resurrected and live forever on planet Jupiter. Whether the caller was the first person to create the tiles remains uncertain.

Many online theories surround the original Tiler, as well as the messages inscribed on the tiles themselves. Considering the proliferation of the tiles in Philadelphia, many believe that the Tiler is from that area. One of the tiles believed to be an original was found in South America, and listed a P.O. box in South Philadelphia. 

Toynbee Tile in Boston
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  • Boston.

There are fewer Toynbee tiles showing up these days, and the originals are beginning to wear over time. Some cities paved over the tiles as soon as they appeared. Chicago, for example, considered the tiles to be an act of vandalism. Other cities, such as Philadelphia, are taking measures to ensure that these tiles are preserved: their current paving regulations mandate that if paving teams come across a Toynbee tile, they must stop their work and notify the city.

Whoever is behind the cryptic messages, they show no signs of stopping. A tile was discovered in New York as recently as August of 2014. While the science may be out on an interplanetary hereafter, the mysterious mind behind the Toynbee tiles certainly found eternal life in the streets of the city.

Uncover the secret with these Toynbee tile snapshots from around the globe:

Toynbee Tile in Philadelphia
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  • Philadelphia.

Toynbee Tile in St Louis
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  • St. Louis.

Toynbee Tile in Michigan
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  • Michigan.

Toynbee Tile in NYC
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  • New York City

Toynbee Tile in Pittsburgh
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  • Pittsburgh.

Additional photos courtesy of Kevin Riley and Paul Sableman