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Mysterious tiles may hold the meaning of civilization — or not

Those who walk along Smithfield Street may notice the plaques embedded on city streets with cryptic messages about dead people on Jupiter.

These Toynbee Tiles show up like urban crop circles, puzzling people in at least 20 U.S. cities. The tiler has never been nabbed. Do the tiles mean something• No one seems to know. People have reported seeing at least a half-dozen tiles in Pittsburgh.

The tiles say: Toynbee idea in movie ‘2001’ resurrect dead on planet Jupiter.

“That’s deep,” said Ricardo Knight of the North Side, as he leaned over to read one of the tiles on Smithfield Street at Forbes Avenue, Downtown. “Yeah, that sounds like a cult or somebody who thinks they can resurrect dead people.”

The mystery behind the tiles started in the 1980s. Throw into the mix an English historian, the classic science-fiction movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” and a Philadelphia social worker and the story becomes more bizarre.

The tiles also have been spotted in three cities in South America. In New York City, about 50 tiles have been counted and nearly 30 have been found in Philadelphia.

Director of Public Works Guy Costa said it is more than likely the tiles are placed in the predawn hours and probably not difficult to apply.

“It looks like a tape or material very similar to that used for line stripes,” he said. He said it might take 15 or 20 minutes to put down.

The first tiles were discovered in the late 1980s, according to newspaper accounts. All tiles look alike and say virtually the same thing — “Toynbee” and “Movie 2001.”

The name Toynbee has been attributed to English historian Arnold Joseph Toynbee who sought to explain the history of civilization in terms of great cultural groups rather than nationalities.

Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001: A Space Odyssey” depicts the evolution of human and alien intelligence and often has been studied for its philosophical importance.

William O’Neill, creator of the Toynbee.net Web site, first saw the tiles in Philadelphia while attending Temple University in 1992. He now works for a telecommunications company in Atlanta. The site includes interpretations, links to news articles and locations and photographs of some of the more than 130 documented Toynbee tiles.

“I kept track of them out of my own curiosity,” O’Neill said. He launched the Web site in 1994.

After nearly 10 years of following Toynbee tiles, O’Neill said he still doesn’t know who makes the tiles or why.

Some Web sites suggest a former Philadelphia social worker is behind the phenomenon because he promoted the idea of resurrecting the dead from Earth on Jupiter.

“I don’t think I know any more than any one else does about this,” O’Neill said. “I have been tracking this Toynbee stuff around for years, and yet no one has come forward.”

Additional Information:

Toynbee Tile sightings in Pittsburgh

Smithfield Street and Seventh Avenue

Oliver Avenue at Smithfield Street, in front of Saks Fifth Avenue

Smithfield Street at Oliver Avenue, in front of Lord & Taylor

Smithfield Street and Forbes Avenue

Forbes Avenue near the Allegheny County Courthouse

Penn Avenue, in front of the Hilton Hotel


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