Most of them are small, about the size of a license plate. Some of them are colorful, while others are more monochromatic. They have been found in different locations, embedded into the streets of many major American and South American cities since the 1980s. Most of them contain variations on the same inscription:
IN MOVIE ‘2001’
ON PLANET JUPITER.”
And no one knows for sure who made the "Toynbee Tiles" or confirmed what they mean, although the text on the tiles and evidence uncovered by researchers have led to a variety of theories.
How the Toynbee Tiles are made
According to researchers in a a documentary about the Toynbee Tiles, Resurrect Dead, the tiles are made of linoleum and a material used to fill cracks in asphalt, then covered in tar paper. They’re dropped on the street (possibly through a hole in the floorboard of a car), and as cars drive over them, the tiles are embedded into the asphalt. Then, as the tar paper wears away, the message is exposed. Once embedded, the tiles can’t be removed, although they can wear away or be covered. Some cities, such as Chicago, see them as vandalism, while others, such as Philadelphia, embrace them as street art. There is no comprehensive list of original Toynbee Tile locations, but they can be found in many major cities in the Northeast and Midwest, with Philadelphia having the highest concentration.
"Toynbee Idea" is about bringing the dead back to life
The tiles get their name from the inscription on them that reads in part, “Toynbee Idea.” According to many people who have researched the tiles, “Toynbee” refers to British historian Arthur J. Toynbee, who lived from 1889 to 1975. He was well known in the mid-1900s as a specialist on international affairs and for his 12-volume history of the universe, A Study of History. Researchers say that “Toynbee’s Idea” that is referenced on the tiles stems from a passage in his autobiography, Experiences, about resurrecting the dead. In the book, Toynbee argues that the idea of bringing dead molecules back to life is scientifically and religiously possible.
The tiles are a reference to Ray Bradbury’s "The Toynbee Convector"
"Toynbee Idea” could also refer to “The Toynbee Convector,” a short story by Ray Bradbury that was first published in Playboy in 1984. The futuristic sci-fi story is based on Arnold J. Toynbee’s theory that civilizations grow and flourish when they must respond to difficult challenges. Perhaps the tiler believes that our society must respond to the challenge of resurrecting the dead on the planet Jupiter.
The tiles mention 2001: A Space Odyssey
The tiles also mention “Kubrick’s 2001,” and Jupiter, references to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was directed by Stanley Kubrick and based on Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel.” The film is about a manned mission to Jupiter, but beyond that it’s not exactly clear what the movie has to do with Toynbee’s idea or the tiles (probably because the film is so ambiguous).