It took about a week for the so-called internet “hive mind” to find a mysterious monolith in the Utah desert, despite state officials’ efforts to keep the location a secret.
The Utah Bureau of Land Management is now trying — and failing — to discourage people from visiting the massive slab of metal, amid speculation that it’s a piece of art, an alien relic or a simple tribute to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Utah government employees found the roughly three metre-tall object in the state’s southern desert earlier this month, during a sheep-counting mission aboard a helicopter.
Officials shared photos and videos of the mysterious object online, sparking a flurry of viral interest around the world, but they didn’t release its location due to concerns about the safety of hikers who might try to visit the remote site.
But that didn’t stop the internet. Speculation exploded across online communities such as Reddit and 4chan, and users eventually managed to crowdsource the location.
Reddit user Tim Slane told BBC News that he found the object on satellite photos by backtracking the government helicopter’s flight path, then logging the point where it dropped below radar.
“I knew that once the location became public knowledge that people would visit the area,” Slane told BBC News.
He added that he’s received some angry messages for revealing the object’s location, but he shrugs them off.
“If I had not found it, someone else would likely have found it soon enough,” he said.
Slane also discovered that the object has been standing silent and undiscovered in the desert for years, based on archived photos from 2015 and 2016.
The satellite photos show only a smattering of shrubs on the site in August 2015. However, the shrubs had been removed and the monolith was present when a new photo was captured in October 2016.
Utah resident and U.S. Army veteran David Surber told BBC he went to the site to confirm it for himself, after reading Slane’s analysis on Reddit.
Surber said he was the first to arrive, but others showed up a short time later to take in the mysterious metal marvel.
“It was a good escape from all the negativity we’ve experienced in 2020,” he said.
Surber posted several photos and videos from the site to Instagram, including one where he tests some of the questions people have about the object.
In the video, Surber offers a close-up look at the panels that make up the object. He shows off the rivets that hold it together and the edges between the panels. He also demonstrates that the object is not magnetic by holding a magnet up to it.
“It’s three panels. All the panels are separate,” he says. “Hollow. Riveted. Not magnetic.”
The object also appears to have accumulated plenty of greasy human handprints since its discovery.
The object is located about 27 kilometres southwest of Moab in southern Utah, though the drive is much longer due to the rugged terrain and circuitous roads. It’s situated in a red rock cove east of the Colorado River, on the eastern side of Canyonlands National Park.
Satellite images on Google Maps show the object casting an unnaturally straight-edged shadow among the cliffs and rocks.
Several photos have been geotagged at that location on Google in recent days.
TV personality Dave Sparks, a.k.a. Heavy D, took a close look at the object in a video posted on his Instagram account this week.
In the video, Sparks says the monolith makers appeared to have used a concrete saw and silicone to embed the object in the ground. He shows off some of the cut marks the saw left in the rock, and suggests that the entire object is likely a hollow triangle made of stainless steel.
“It’d be cooler if it was one solid chunk,” he said.
Others have shown up to play with the odd object, which appears to have struck a chord with some of the same alien-loving people that enjoyed the “Storm Area 51” trend last year.
Despite the speculation about aliens, all signs appear to suggest the object is human-made. Since its discovery, no artists have come forward to claim it.
Some have suggested that it looks like the work of John McCracken, who was known for making various “plank” sculptures — but McCracken died in 2011, years before the object was seemingly built.
Others have said it looks like a piece by Petecia Le Fawnkhawk, a sculptor based in the southwestern United States. She told the magazine Artnet that the work is not hers.
It remains unclear whether the object has any link to the Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The Utah Bureau of Land Management issued a warning about the site this week, amid a surge in visitors.
“Although we can’t comment on active investigations, the Bureau of Land Management would like to remind public land visitors that using, occupying, or developing the public lands or their resources without a required authorization is illegal, no matter what planet you are from,” it said.
On Thursday, a spokesperson for the Utah Department of Public Safety said there isn’t much that officials can do to keep people from visiting the site.
“The genie is out of the bottle,” the spokesperson told BBC News. “It’s a free country.”