Mysterious monoliths in Utah, California, Romania, UK: Everything we know so far

These pesky monoliths keep appearing (and disappearing), and they're utterly fascinating.

Steph Panecasio Former Editor
Steph Panecasio was an Editor based in Sydney, Australia. She knows a lot about the intersection of death, technology and culture. She's a fantasy geek who covers science, digital trends, video games, subcultures and more. Outside work, you'll most likely find her rewatching Lord of the Rings or listening to D&D podcasts.
Steph Panecasio
6 min read
Utah Department of Public Safety Aero Bureau

Monolith madness is upon us. The internet went absolutely nuts over a strange metal monolith seen mysteriously standing in the middle of the Utah desert. The structure stood out from its surroundings with a metallic sheen, spotted by a Utah Department of Public Safety helicopter as it surveyed the area.

"I'd say it's probably between 10 and 12 feet high," pilot Bret Hutchings told KSL. "We were kind of joking around that if one of us suddenly disappears, then I guess the rest of us make a run for it." The crew landed to take a closer look. Hutchings said the monolith was stuck firmly into the ground and speculated it might have a NASA connection, or was perhaps a work of art.

Twitter feeds were immediately dominated with conspiracy theories. Were aliens responsible? Was it a piece of art? Was it the largest scale monolith prank ever before seen? 

Reddit users jumped on the mystery, using Google Earth to isolate the monolith's approximate location, tracking the flight paths of Utah Public Safety's helicopters to triangulate a rough area near Canyonlands National Park and the Colorado River. Historical imaging data reflected that the monolith arrived sometime between August 2015 and October 2016.

But just as soon as Reddit users began making headway in tracing back the origins of the monolith, it vanished. You'd think that would be the end of that, right? Wrong. Here's everything we know so far.

Theories and speculation

In light of the aesthetic, location and rough timing for the original monolith's appearance, Internet sleuths narrowed down some of the wilder theories to two frontrunners: The monolith could be either a leftover prop, or the work of minimalist sculptor John McCracken.

The Canyonlands National Park is a relatively popular area for filming, from big budget films like Mission Impossible 2 to epic sci-fi dramas like HBO's Westworld -- the latter of which was filming in a nearby location in 2016. Given the metallic structure's futuristic look, it makes sense to guess that someone on the Westworld crew either didn't pack everything up properly, or maybe even used the metal slab to play a long-term Kubrick-inspired prank on the world.

But we're yet to see any footage of similar props on the show, so the guess remains just that: A guess.

Another promising but equally puzzling theory is that it could be the work of the late sculptor John McCracken.

The David Zwirner gallery, which reportedly represents his estate, appeared to suggest in a tweet that the Utah monolith was a legit McCracken. "The portal to Utah is at David Zwirner 20th Street," the gallery tweeted. 

But there's one significant problem for this theory: McCracken passed away in 2011, at least four years prior to the monolith's appearance in Utah.

While some close to McCracken reportedly think it's unlikely he would have left this artwork in a desert, the artist's son, Patrick McCracken, told The New York Times that news of the monolith reminded him of a conversation with his father back in 2002. 

"We were standing outside looking at the stars and he said something to the effect of that he would like to leave his artwork in remote places to be discovered later," Patrick McCracken told the Times. "This discovery of a monolith piece -- that's very much in line with his artistic vision."

Even if we accept the possibility of the monolith being an authentic McCracken, the questions remain: Who put it there -- and why?

The discoveries in Romania and California

In case you thought the story couldn't get any weirder, just remember it's 2020 and anything's possible. A structure that appeared to be identical to the one in the Utah desert was found on Batca Doamnei Hill in Romania on Nov. 26, according to The Mirror. But it didn't remain for very long. According to a Tuesday report by Reuters, the Romanian monolith disappeared four days later.

"The 2.8 metre (9ft) tall structure disappeared overnight as quietly as it was erected last week," journalist Robert Iosub of the Ziar Piatra Neamt local newspaper told Reuters. "An unidentified person, apparently a bad local welder, made it ... now all that remains is just a small hole covered by rocky soil."

On Dec. 3, another copycat monolith appeared, at the top of Pine Mountain in Atascadero, California. A tweet published by Connor Allen, a news correspondent for the Paso Robles Press & Atascadero News, featured three images of the new monolith.

According to Atascadero News, the monolith appears to be made of stainless steel and measures approximately 10 feet tall and 18 inches wide. Unlike the Utah monolith, it appears to be unattached to the ground -- so a strong enough push could knock it over.

A disappearing act

Just like its twin in Romania, as soon as the Utah monolith hit peak internet saturation, it vanished without a trace. 

On Nov. 29, officials from the Bureau of Land Management in Utah made a statement on Facebook declaring that the monolith was gone but that they had no idea who took it. 

"We have received credible reports that the illegally installed structure, referred to as the 'monolith' has been removed from Bureau of Land Management (BLM) public lands by an unknown party," read the statement

Thankfully we didn't have to wait too long to get an answer for this one. 

The day of its disappearance, Colorado adventure photographer Ross Bernards was visiting the structure when he says he saw four men arrive and dismantle it. He documented the structure's presence and then its absence, on Instagram. He also shared images snapped by himself and fellow photographer Michael James Newlands.

"Four guys rounded the corner and two of them walked forward," Bernards writes. "They gave a couple of pushes on the monolith and one of them said, 'You better have got your pictures.' He then gave it a big push, and it went over, leaning to one side. He yelled back to his other friends that they didn't need the tools. The other guy with him at the monolith then said, 'This is why you don't leave trash in the desert.'" 

The monolith's disappearance certainly captured the attention of the right people. Ripley's (yes, the Believe It or Not Ripley's) announced it would pay $10,000 to the first person who comes forward as the proud legal owner of the monolith, or provides accurate information (exclusively to Ripley's) on where to find it. 

The removal team comes forward

On Dec. 3, two influencers claimed they'd been part of the group that had removed the Utah monolith. Tour guide Sylvan Christensen and YouTube personality Andy Lewis (known as Sketchy Andy) published a YouTube video on Dec. 1, showing their parts in the removal process.

According to a statement from the men, the removal was done in an effort to prevent the destruction of surrounding land, as people were trudging in to see where the monolith stood without taking care of the environment. 

"We removed the Utah Monolith because there are clear precedents for how we share and standardize the use of our public lands, natural wildlife, native plants, fresh water sources, and human impacts upon them," Christensen told news outlets.

"Let's be clear: The dismantling of the Utah Monolith is tragic, and if you think we're proud, we're not. We're disappointed. Furthermore, we were too late," he said. "This land wasn't physically prepared for the population shift (especially during a pandemic)."

The response to the removal on social media has been mixed, with some commenters criticizing the group's decision to remove the monolith when the US Bureau of Land Management hadn't yet made any indication that it was affecting the landscape so negatively.

Though removing the monolith didn't violate any BLM policies, the introduction of the monolith did -- so though the disappearance isn't being investigated, the original appearance is still under scrutiny.

Mystifying Britain

On Dec. 6, another monolith was spotted on the Isle of Wight, off the south coast of England. It's about 7.5 feet high and 2 feet wide, according to the BBC. The country's National Trust told the broadcaster it would investigate.

Now what?

Whether you're still staunchly on the alien bandwagon (2001: A Space Odyssey, anyone?) or you're convinced that the monolith is just a publicity stunt of some sort, the fact of the matter is that we're in limbo. Given the attention they've garnered and the year we've had so far, the monoliths could very well turn out to be something completely unexpected. 2020, right?

CNET's Sean Keane contributed to this report.