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Landscapes, Legends and Archaeology of Ethiopia
Report of the lecture given by Louise Schofield on October 26th 2011

For all too short a time on Wednesday we were transported from the well-known confines of Cranleigh Arts Centre to the unfamiliar and awe-inspiring expanses of Ethiopia. Louise Schofield was our guide, and she took us on a truly fabulous journey. Her deep knowledge of this extraordinary country was acquired through a desire to explore the possibility of exploiting the richness of an area's past in terms of archaeology and cultural heritage to help a present troubled by famine and drought. In order to discover a suitable site she first undertook a country-wide tour, and on Wednesday she retraced her steps and took us with her, all the time enthralling us with her passion and love for both the country and its people.

From the breathtaking sweeping scenery of the Simien Mountains we went past Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, where the papyrus reed boats of today are identical to those used in Ancient Egypt, and on to the moonscape 126 metres below sea level which is the seismically-active Danakil Depression, whose daytime temperatures of up to 70 degrees Centigrade (dropping to a cool 25 at night!) make it the hottest place on Earth. We eventually arrived back in the north at a remote prehistoric river valley in Tigray - which was to prove to be the biblical location for Louise's first project.

During this trip we met all sorts of exotic characters. There was the old lady who, never having seen a white person before, had to poke and prod Louise to ensure that she was indeed a real human and not a spirit! We learned that an Islamic town east of Addis Ababa was home to the hyena men, who go out after dark every day to slaughter a cow which they then feed to the hyenas so that the beasts do not come into the town and eat the children. Legend has it that the men themselves then turn into hyenas for the rest of the night. The members of the fierce Affar tribe in the inhospitable Danakil Desert are salt miners, sometimes spending weeks and weeks on end transporting their blocks of salt by camel as far afield as The Sudan. We also met Louise's first landlady, ornately painted and sporting a giant clay lip disk, and then the stilt-walkers who made such a weird picture as they appeared to stride above the vegetation!.

Louise settled on the village of Gijet in the Eyesus Hintsa valley as the site for her environmental and archaeological project. By her own admission, the first survey was decidedly unscientific, but it did uncover arrowheads and cutting tools dating back to 30,000 years BC - and it was the best fun! They discovered prehistoric dwellings, and early churches, including an especially beautiful C14 church hewn out of the rock, which they renovated from top to bottom, and by this time she had engaged the help (and, I would also say, won the respect and love) of all 2,800 inhabitants of the valley. Not only did they work on the archaeological site with her but they also began to terrace the hillsides and plant 5,000 tree seedlings - and when payday came it took many hours to get through the payroll! Traditional building methods were used to construct a community hall and a museum to attract visitors, but the inhabitants still don't quite seem to understand that the museum is meant to be open to strangers and that it is not in fact Louise's personal house!

On her return to Ethiopia next month, she is looking forward to an adventurous expedition before furthering her second big project which is based near the small town of Hawzien on the Gheralta Plateau, focussing on food security and again on maximizing the income potential of the fabulous local cultural heritage. There is also the really exciting prospect of excavating, and perhaps even re-opening, a gold mine!

I think I speak for all of us there when I say that this journey with Louise means that we will never again think of Ethiopia without feeling moved and inspired by what she is doing there.

Alison Morton

PS Funding for these projects has come largely from a British venture capitalist, but Louise and some friends have set up a charity to raise money to support her work. The Tigray Trust can be found at They are in the process of setting up an online donation scheme, but if you would like to donate in the interim, cheques can be sent to the address shown on the website.

Inspirational lecturer, Louise Schofield, chats with members after her fascinating talk