Treasures of the Burgess Shale



Camp site showing American, Dominion (Canadian) & USGS flags - Click for larger image [89-6346; RU95, Box 69]
Camp site showing American, Dominion (Canadian) & USGS flags
[RU95 b69/89-6346_0b]

The Burgess Shale preserved fossils of soft-bodied animals (which are rarely fossilized) from the Cambrian Period, 500 million years ago. At the time, very little was known about this period, but with Walcott’s discovery, the Burgess Shale came to be recognized as one of the most important geologic findings of the 20th century.

An excerpt from an article in the Mountaineering Section of the Canadian Alpine Journal details an expedition made to Robson Peak in 1911: “Subsequent co-operation and financial assistance by the British Columbia, Alberta and Dominion Governments made it possible to enlarge the scope of the expedition, and an investigation of the fauna, flora and geology was added…the matter was submitted to Dr Charles Walcott, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute of Washington, who collaborated most heartily and sent a party of four to join and work with the Alpine Club...Dr Walcott is well known in Canada. He has for years visited the Canadian Rockies and has devoted much time each summer to the study of the Cambrian rocks and of the fossils they contain.”

-Adapted from “The Alpine Club of Canada’s Expedition to Jasper Park, Yellowhead Pass and Mount Robson Region, 1911” by Arthur O. Wheeler, Canadian Alpine Journal, 1912, Vol. IV.

From 1909 to 1925, Walcott collected 65,000 fossil specimens from the Burgess Shale. In a paper Walcott wrote on the Robson Peak District, he describes one of his fossil findings high up on Robson Peak:

“A new fossil find was made by chance. Mr. Harry Blagden and I were sitting on a huge block of rock at the lower end of Mural Glacier, munching our cold luncheon, when I happened to notice a block of black, shaly rock lying on the ice. Wishing to warm up, for the mist drifting over the ice was cold and wet, I crossed to the block and split it open. On the parting there were several entire trilobites belonging to new species of a new subfauna of the Lower Cambrian fauna. There were also some fine marine shells of a kind that occurs in the Lower Cambrian rocks west of St. Petersburg, Russia. We found the bed from which this block had come by carefully tracing fragments of the shale scattered on the upward-sloping surface of the ice to a cliff two miles away.”

The fossils that Walcott discovered and collected in the Canadian Rockies form one of the treasures of the Smithsonian Institution, and it is interesting to note his reasons for focusing his research activities in this area.

“Friends have asked how I happened to take up geologic work in the Canadian Rockies. The reason is a very simple one. As a boy of seventeen I planned to study those older fossiliferous rocks of the North American Continent, those the great English geologist Adam Segwick had called the Cambrian system on account of his first finding them in the Cambria district of Wales. This study has led me to many wild and beautiful regions where nature has glorified these old sea beds by thrusting them up into mountain masses with forests below and crowning them with perpetual snow and ice. It was to learn…the geology and the record of life at the Cambrian time that led and forced me summer after summer to traverse and live in those grand and beautiful Rockies.”

-Adapted from “The Robson Peak District of British Columbia and Alberta” by Charles D. Walcott, (undated paper), Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7004, Box 23, Folder 9.

Charles Walcott near huge boulder at Robson Camp, (undated) - Click for larger image [2004-25856; RU 7004, Box 44, Folder 10]
Charles Walcott near huge boulder at Robson Camp, (undated)


Olenoides serratus - Click to view larger image
Olenoides serratus

Ottoia Prolifica

View looking across Lake O’Hara toward Mt. Lefroy, 1910
View looking across Lake O’Hara toward Mt. Lefroy, 1910
[RU7004, negative# 000865_1