A Look On The Lighter Side: Shopping lists provide window on the ancient world

Judy Epstein

It’s not often that shopping lists make history, but not so long ago that’s what happened in the Holy Land.

Researchers from Tel Aviv University recently subjected 18 fragments of ancient pottery to some new, computer-aided analysis. The pottery pieces dated from 600 B.C. and were covered in ink inscriptions in ancient Hebrew.

Researchers found several different handwritings for what they concluded were messages back and forth to the supplies quartermaster of a fort in ancient Judah.

The messages said things like: “To Eliashib (the Quartermaster): And now, give the Kittiyim 3 baths of wine, and write the name of the day.”

Why write the name of the day? Was that some kind of ancient sell-by date? Or was it to check up on poor old Eliashib to make sure he’d really done it?

“And a full homer of wine, bring tomorrow; don’t be late. And if there is vinegar, give it to them.”

I know nothing about ancient Hebrew and next to nothing about pottery. (I know that it breaks far too easily when all you’ve done is put it down on someone’s granite counter-top.)

But I do know a thing or two about shopping lists.

The first thing I know is that no matter where you put them, no matter how carefully you have stowed them, in a pocket or a purse or a lead-lined container, your list will disappear by the time you walk into the store.

You are forced to improvise, free-styling around the store, trying frantically to recall what the heck was so urgent that it brought you there in the first place.

Maybe that’s why you find so many other people wandering, too — glued to their phones, and muttering:

“All I could find is the garlic-flavored — will that do?”

“So what ARE we having for dinner?”

“Just how fresh does cheese have to be?”

“What do you mean, ‘Try the pretzel aisle’? I’m in the pretzel aisle staring at the pretzels, and I tell you it isn’t here!”

They obviously had problems in ancient Judah, too. Why else would someone named Nahum have been ordered to: “Go to the house of Eliashib, son of Eshiyahu, (to collect a jar of oil and send it somewhere) quickly, and seal it with your seal”? Just how quickly does oil go bad, anyway? (Clearly it lasts longer than eight days if the ancient miracle of Chanukah is anything to go by!)

Sometimes I pull out a shopping wagon and find somebody else’s scrunched-up list in the bottom of it. I often think why not use it? How different could shopping lists be anyway? Look at Nahum, Eliashib and me; we all use olive oil, wine and vinegar. But this list also features scallops, ham and swiss cheese. Sorry, Nahum, no ham for you!

Another thing I know about shopping lists is that they magically reappear once you get home. “Pancake mix! That’s what I needed!” And you still need it.

Because that’s the final thing about shopping lists: there is always some residue, something listed that you always forget. That is, until it gets stuck in your head, and it’s all you remember for the next 20 trips. Then, like a modern, supermarket version of the sorcerer’s apprentice, you keep bringing home applesauce or chicken soup or paper towels  every shopping trip, until there’s no place left in the house to put them.

“And Hananyahu has commanded you to Beersheba with 2 donkey’s load and you shall wrap up the dough with them.”

It all makes me wonder if the world can look forward to the day when my scrap-paper shopping lists will be found in some cave and studied by researchers, too.

“This looks like the handwriting of six different people, but they’re all from someone named ‘Judy.’ Can it really just be 30 years of one woman’s shopping lists? Why on earth did she save them?”

“And why did she NEVER remember the pancake mix?”

What might be the headline for such an exhibit?

“Ancient Shopping Lists Are Key to One Writer’s Delusions.”


The original version of this column ran April 22, 2016

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Judy Epstein

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