With today’s technology, it seems like there is no mystery or question that can’t be answered, or person that can’t be found. But the Toynbee Tiles are one of urbanity’s unsolved mysteries. Scattered throughout nearly two dozen cities in the United States and in three South American countries, these linoleum messages in asphalt have confounded viewers for almost 30 years, after the first one appeared in Philadelphia. The tiles bear the following message:
IN MOVIE 2001
So who is behind this bizarre message? Philadelphia residents Justin Duerr, Jon Foy, Colin Smith, and Steve worked obsessively for six years chasing clues and putting the pieces together of the mystery to create the documentary Resurrect Dead: Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles. The tiles are made of linoleum and asphalt glue wedged between two pieces of tar paper. They were often in places that are impossible for people to stand still in, like the entrance of the Holland Tunnel and the middle of freeways. It is thought that the tiles are dropped from the open bottom of a car’s driver’s seat. As the top layer of tar paper erodes, the tile and its message are revealed.
Toynbee tile in Philadelphia, Image via Wikimedia
Duerr and his team theorize that the tiles refer to a resurrection of the dead who will create a new civilization in outer space. The name Toynbee comes from British historian Arnold Toynbee, who argued that dead molecules could be revived if scientists put their focus in their right place. “MOVIE 2001” is a reference to the sci-fi film 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which humans travel to Jupiter to find information pertaining to the survival of mankind. “PLANET JUPITER” represents the future home for the humankind that will be resurrected from the dead by science. Duerr believes that the suspect is trying to spread his words to as many as possible, which explains the quick by-car system used to install the tiles.
Adding to the mystery is that the creator of the Toynbee Tiles was thought to be Philadelphia resident Severino Verna (alias James Morasco), but more tiles have appeared since his death in 2003 suggesting possibly a group of creators or copycats. The work has an unsettling concept, and while maybe less hip than Banksy, far more mysterious. The four creators of the documentary have put together a website where visitors can report sitings. They’ve even created a map of all reported locations, and there are dozens of tiles in Manhattan. Check out the full map.
To delve deeper into the investigation, check out the documentary Resurrect Dead: Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles
What is your favorite New York mystery? Share with Anna Brown at her Twitter handle @brooklynbonanza!