Five of the World’s Most Fascinating Lists


What excuses did Egyptians make for taking a day off work? What was on Galileo’s shopping list? How much compensation could a Barbarian claim for having an eye or tooth knocked out?

Ahh lists. What a chaotic place the world would be without lists. The human compulsion to record and categorise life with a list of one kind or another goes back thousands of years, pretty much to the dawn of writing. Whether it’s a shopping list, to do list, or even (like this one) a list of lists, each one offers a fascinating insight into its author’s world and mind…

1. Egyptian Workmen’s Absences

Egyptian workmen's absence

Dating to around 1250 BC, this register of Egyptian workmen’s absences was found at Deir el-Medina; a walled village for the craftsmen who built and decorated the New Kingdom tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Recording names, dates and excuses, illness and injury feature prominently, as do family emergencies, home improvements, religious feasts and festivals, perform other errands and even like the best of us… drinking.

2. The Eight Kindes of Drunkennes

8 kinds of drunkennes

Ah the listicle. If you think this is just a modern phenomenon, then think again, because the roots of this oh-so-ubiquitous format can in fact be traced back centuries, like this amazing example, created by Thomas Nash. Published in a pamphlet in 1592, lose all the extraneous vowels and it really wouldn’t seem out of place in today’s listicle-loving world. The Eight Kinds of Drunkennes is, essentially, an Elizabethan Buzzfeed. Or, y’know, Buzzfeede.

3. Galileo’s Shopping List

galileo list 2

Yup, if you’re someone who makes shopping lists on the back of envelopes, you’re in good company. A list written by Galileo Galilei on an old letter dated 23 November 1609 shows some of the things he needed to lay his hands on. Scribbled among the supplies he needed for making improvements to his telescope are items like chickpeas, rice, pepper and sugar – obviously the grocery items he needed on his weekly shop. And, once he’s got everything he needs, there’s a reminder to “pay debts to Lord Mannucci and give him back the Edilio”. If anyone knows what an Edilio is, let us know so we can add it to our list of things we learned today!

4. Barbarian Brawls

Barbarian brawls

We’ve all heard the phrase “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, but let’s say you did actually knock out an eye or a tooth in a drunken brawl, how exactly do you settle such a mishap? Take a look at the Barbarian Law Codes, which spread throughout Europe after the destruction of Rome. These lists are remarkable, not just in the injuries and insults envisioned, but the precise quantification of how much each is deemed to be worth.

5. Leonardo’s To Do List

leonardo list 2

And so to the subject of ‘todolistology’, a term coined by the American writer Sasha Cogen. When your mind is overflowing, the To Do list is a wonderfully idiosyncratic aide memoir, and whose could possibly be more idiosyncratic than that of the great polymath Leonardo daVinci? As he himself said “it is useful to constantly observe, note and consider”. So, just what was buzzing around Leo’s head?

On one particularly dense page of notes, written around 1510 before a trip to Pavia, Leonardo lists Boots / Stockings / Comb / Towel / Shirts / Shoelaces / Charcoal / Spectacles with case / Firestick / Fork and A pane of glass as some of the things he’ll need for his journey. Of course, before he goes, he must remember to ”Have Avicenna translated” / “Get hold of a skull” / “Get your anatomy books bound” / “Observe holes in the substance of the brain” / “Describe the jaw of a crocodile” before finally reminding himself to “Give the measurement of the dead using his finger as a unit”. Oh. And  nutmeg. Of course. Don’t forget some nutmeg. Curiously, they’re all written from right to left. Great minds, eh?

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Written by Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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