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January 22, 2008
When I was here about 10 years ago, I noticed some fossil leaves in the foundation stones of the church. Apparently, the foundation has been upgraded since that time because the fossil leaves are nowhere to be found, however, we do find some leaf and stem impressions and petrified wood within the building stones of other buildings surrounding the square. We decide to look for the locality later in the morning.
Before leaving the town square, we stop at a house next to the church where a group of women are making injera, a large pancake-shaped spongy "crepe" made from tef, a grain that is unique to Ethiopia. Tef is the only grain to contain a symbiotic yeast, so no additional yeast is needed in the injera batter. The tef mixture is fermented for up to three days before the batter is cooked on a stone over hot coals (see photos below). Just in case you were wondering, there are electric injera makers being marketed in the larger cities.
On the outskirts of town, we investigate some exposures of interbedded, white volcaniclastic sediments (layers rich in volcanic ash) within the plateau-capping basalts. We discover leaf and stem impressions in some layers of these fine-grained sediments; fossil wood and tree trunks too. Is this where Alem Ketema gets the stone for its buildings?
Our next field stop today is a series of exposures north of Alem Ketema that overlook the Wenchit and Besola Rivers. The surrounding scenery is impressive with incredible vertical relief and some pretty good reddish beds of the Mugher Mudstone to prospect. We pick up a lot of weathered turtle, fish, and crocodilian bone on the surface and trace it to the levels where it originated. This increases our chances of uncovering some articulated bones. As luck would have it, I find some! These are the first articulated bones found in the Mugher Mudstone at this locality: a series of vertebrae from what appears to be a goniopholid crocodile, though I'd love to make a dinosaur out of it. A more definitive identification will have to wait until we can borrow these fossils, prepare them, and do some comparisons with bones from other animals found both here and in Europe, from sediments of the same age.
January 23, 2008
We stop to stretch our legs and discover that one of the tires on Abdi's Landcuiser is almost flat. While we change the tire, we're suddenly surrounded by a group of curious children they must be from a nearby village and school has just let out. It seems that whenever we stop, local school children are often the first to greet us. They all want to practice their English. When we're just passing through a town, shouts of "faranji, faranji" (=foreigner) can be non-stop.
We push on past Debre Libanos, a very important town historically. Debre Libanos was the center of the Ethiopian Church for four centuries prior to a brutal massacre of monks and lay people initiated by fascist soldiers during the Italian occupation in 1937. The monastery was destroyed and the town never recovered as the center of learning that it used to be. Today, a modern church sits on the edge of the canyon whose steep sides are terraced with cultivated fields.
We drive until dark but find ourselves some 200 km south of our destination, Bahir Dar. We spend the night in the small town of Funetsalem. Pleasant accommodations are had at the Extreme Hotel and we settle in for the night after a long day of driving.
January 24, 2008
We have a choice: drive north to Adigrat and around to Mekelle, or head east to Woldiya, then enter Mekelle from the south. We decide on the latter plan. Mistake! Little did we know that the road Teshome selects is barely passable and under construction for most of the way. A 12-hour day of bone-jarring roads, dodging road construction equipment, negotiating detours, flat tires, and eating dust (literally) gets us only to the outpost of Filaket, far short of our goal of Woldiya. We pull off the road and spend the night in a small "rustic" compound as it becomes impossible to drive any further east with darkness falling. But, hey, they have satellite TV, cold beer, and tibs. We're tired and sore and head to bed after dinner.
A little more Ethiopia history: Mengistu Haile Maryam, leader of the Derg, a committee of low-ranking military officers and enlisted men set up to investigate the military's grievances and abuses, was responsible for the overthrow of Haile Selassie in the 1974 revolution. Mengistu, who became military dictator, was removed from power in 1991 by two rebel movements, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF). In 1994, Ethiopia adopted a new federal constitution and parliamentarian government, led since then by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
January 25, 2008
We finally arrive in Mekelle in the late afternoon and before the local office of Culture and Tourism closes for the day. Chalachew introduces us to the commissioner and we obtain our letter of permission, a requirment for conducting field work in Tigrai. Mekelle is the capital city of Tigrai and the center for all these types of administrative activities. As a region, Tigrai is central to many important historical events in Ethiopia: the arrival of Christianity, brought by the Axumite Emperor in 400 A.D.; it was the final resting place (as legend contends) for the Ark of the Covenant, via Solomon and Jerusalem; and Emperor Menilek II defeated an Italian force at Adwa in 1896.
We check into the Axum Hotel, then drive into the commercial district to pick up food and a few supplies for the field. Hailay Gebreyesus, from the Institute of Paleo-environment, Human Evolution and Cultural Anthropology at Mekelle University, joins us for dinner at the Yordanis Restaurant in town. Hailay and Chalachew have previously done field work together. Hailay asks me to give a talk on our project, sponsored by his institute, at Mekelle University when we return from the field sometime next week. We set a date for next Wednesday afternoon at 4:00 pm.Now, back to dinner: a variety of delicious and colorful vegetarian wats are served buffet style, many of which I haven't seen before. Pureed beans, lentils, spinach, vegetable stews, potatoes, carrots, salads all piled onto injera. We sample the buffet and order zizzle (crispy with a wonderful spice) and special tibs (longer slices of lamb) as well. This is definitely one of the better restaurants we've been to so far, and most of the menu items are inexpensive, about 20 birr (just over two dollars).
January 25, 2008
It's market day and we enter Hagere Selam via Main Street, along with many other shoppers and merchants. We need to purchase more grain sacks for collecting matrix in the field so Hailay brings us to a vendor. After some negotiation and examination of the goods, we settle on the bargain price of 3 birr a piece. Hailay tells me that this is the going price and no bargaining is necessary. We'll have to remember this next time we're in Addis, where we paid the inflated farinji price of 9 birr per bag in the Mercado. We said goodbye to Hailay but we'll see him again next week.
Back in the Landcruisers and on the gravel again. From Hagere Selam, we start a gradual descent and eventually reach the edge of the plateau where, from a breathtaking overlook, we can see the vast exposures of Late Triassic and possibly Early Jurassic red beds of the Adigrat Sandstone Formation.
The Adigrat Sandstone, or Adigrat Formation, is a 300- to 600-meter-thick, medium-grained, non-calcareous quartz sandstone that is yellowish to red and pink in color. It represents a shallow transgressive stage of the Mesozoic sea over this region of Africa during the Late TriassicEarly Jurassic, beginning more than 200 million years ago. Sedimentological studies reveal a shallow water, sandy facies with the majority of the sediments deposited in a littoral environment. Fluviatile and deltaic sediments are present in the lower part of the formation.
My previous visits to this area in 1997 and 2004 resulted in the discovery of the first vertebrate fossil localities in Unit I, the lowest part of the formation. The unit weathers into low-lying badlands at the base of the higher cliff-forming member in this region of Tigrai. I was fortunate to find a new species of fossil temnospondyl amphibian, described in 1998, that we named Abiadisaurus witteni. The genus is named for the nearby town of Abi Adi; the species is named in honor of Dr. Karen Witten, a physician studying the prevention of malaria at a local clinic in Mekelle she was a very good friend of our crew's in 1996.
One of the main goals for this portion of the trip, besides introducing Randy and Greg to the Late Triassic of the region, is to review and relocate some of my previous localities, georeference those sites, and resample and prospect for new fossil-bearing horizons here.
We're anxious to get out in the field tomorrow to explore and prospect. I'll be sharing more with you in my next installment as we prospect these "red beds" and local exposures of the Adigrat Sandstone, so stay tuned!
All photos by Mark Goodwin, Randy Irmis, and Greg Wilson.
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