Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles

Resurrect Dead Poster (Source: Argot Pictures)

By Sharon K. Gilbert

I love documentaries, particularly ones that explore mysteries. Well, last night I stumbled upon a doozy. We’ve recently cut the cable here in Gilbert House, so our only choices are streaming video or DVDs. I’m in the habit of retiring early, but I always watch a little ‘something’ to pass the time while I ‘get sleepy’ (usually an hour or so). So, last night, as I clicked through new offerings on Netflix, I chanced upon a title that rang a bell: Resurrect Dead: Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles. An intriguing title, no?

Well, if the ‘Toynbee Tile’ reference doesn’t ring a bell for you, let me give you a quick lesson in this remarkable bit of urban mythology. Beginning in the early 1990s, people living in Philadelphia began noticing rectangular signs embedded in the asphalt of city streets.

Over the years, more and more tiles were discovered, and not all are in Philly. In fact, there are hundreds, stretching across the US as far west as Kansas City and even one in South America (Chile)!

For the most part, each ’tile’ contains the same message:

MOViE 2001 

No, this isn’t another Plan 9 from Outer Space idea, but it’s not far removed.  The Toynbee referenced is Arnold J. Toynbee, a British historian who served in Foreign Office during WWI and represented Britain at the Paris Peace Conference. He taught Byzantine history at University of London (appointed to the Koraes Chair, funded by a wealthy Greek benefactor). Originally sympathetic toward the idea of a Jewish State, his pro-Zionist views slowly shifted toward sympathy to the Arabs who visited him in 1922.

In later years, Toynbee penned a ten-volume series called ‘A Study of History’, which drew praise from American readers who espoused Toynbee’s dominionist views (only Christendom could save civilization). You can read more about Toynbee at Wikipedia. He’s a fascinating figure. So much so that Ray Bradbury adopted him as a character in “The Toynbee Convector”.

How does an eminent British diplomat/historian connect to crudely constructed street messages in the US? Apparently, the tiles’ are just one more aspect of a mind gone mad—a manifesto of sorts that grew out of Toynbee’s writings, particularly this passage from his book ‘Experiences’:

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.

Photograph of the ‘Manifesto Tile’

According to writings on the tiles and in letters uncovered by our three resourceful researchers, the designer of the tiles believed that ‘dead molecules’ of human corpses can reanimate, no matter how long we’ve been ‘gone’, and that only Science could fulfill God’s promise to resurrect us. (The very notion that ‘God’ needs the help of man–His creation–in perform resurrection is ludicrous, but ideas often twist within the mind of man. Once Science mastered this miracle, the tiler believed this new, evolved race should populate Jupiter.

If all this sounds familiar, it is. It’s an old lie that proclaims mankind’s innate deity, waiting to be discovered through chemistry and a bit of ritual magick.

The documentary I watched last night made no philosophical connections other than to state the tiler’s claims. Resurrect Dead was produced by Toynbee researchers Justin Duerr, Colin Smith, and Steve Weinik. Director Jon Foy follows these three real life ‘Lone Gunmen’ (X-Files reference, by the way) as they endeavor to find the tiles’ creator.

Resurrect Dead was winner of the Sundance 2011 Director’s award (documentary category) and Roger Ebert’s number 5 pick for best docs of 2011. Not bad for a first effort, eh?

I won’t spoil the ending, but I highly recommend the doc to anyone who loves a mystery. The artwork is gritty and compelling, and Duerr, Smith, and Weinik will win your hearts.