More than 2 km up a mountain, with a dizzying scree slope below, clear blue skies above and ringed by majestic peaks, the clinking sound of rocks being split in search of fossils fills the air. In the summer of 1910, the Burgess Shale- one of the most important fossil sites in the world- is in the process of being discovered.

With incredible preservation of the soft bodies of some of the earliest identifiable complex animals to have lived- 540 million years ago-, the Burgess Shale discovery was a palaeontological bombshell.

Charles Doolittle Walcott, director of the United States Geological Survey and president of the Smithsonian Institution, led the project, but his family, including wife Helena, daughter Helen and friend Mary Vaux were integral to the research. Every summer they camped high in the forest, took part in working at the quarry splitting rocks, and processed the fossils at the camp. Mary Vaux was already a highly respected botanist, photographer and explorer, and she worked at camp on Charles’ photographic negatives.


Arriving for the 1910 season, left, Helena, centre, Helen dressed in field outfit, right, Charles. This was the year the major discovery was made. Photo: family collection, by kind permission of Erin Younger


Helen Walcott at right, Charles Walcott left, Sidney Walcott centre; splitting shale slabs for fossils at the Burgess Shale quarry, 1913. Photo SIA2008-1906 by kind permission of Smithsonian Institution.

In 1911, tragedy struck the family when Helena was killed in an accident. That summer’s fossil expedition still went ahead however, including Helen continuing her mother’s work. A few years later, the long friendship between Mary Vaux and Charles Walcott was transformed into love when they married, with Mary returning to assist with fieldwork for years afterwards.


Mary Vaux (later Vaux Walcott), collecting flower specimens in the Rockies. Photo taken by Charles Walcott; by kind permission of Smithsonian Institution.

The scientific impetus for the Burgess Shale discovery was undoubtedly due to Charles Walcott. However, the enormous effort of working at the quarry, processing shale and camping high in the mountains (where snow in August wasn’t unknown) was shared by these three women, and their contribution should be acknowledged. In fact, Helena was collecting with Charles on 2nd August 1910 when the Burgess Shale site itself was found. Both her and her daughter clearly enjoyed the adventure and discovery of fieldwork, while Mary Vaux is known in her own right as one of the great explorers of the Rocky Mountain wilderness, documented in her many remarkable photographs.

Much of the information for this post comes from the fantastic Royal Ontario Museum website, where you can see more amazing images from the Burgess Shale fieldwork here, read about the fossils, and take asubmarine to the ancient seafloor.

Written by Becky (@LeMoustier)

Posted by Suzie (@suzie_birch)

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