The scientist who found and named the Burgess Shale was Charles Doolittle Walcott of the Smithsonian Institution, the leading expert on the earliest animals at that time. He had heard stories of "stone bugs" collected in the area by Canadian Pacific railway workers and R.G. McConnell of the Geological Survery of Canada. Walcott first visited the area in July, 1907 and discovered the first fossils from the now famous Burgess Shale deposit on Aug 31, 1909. The following season he located the source of the fossils and began excavating.

What he found was unlike anything he had seen before: most of the fossils were soft-bodied animals, without shells. Such preservation is very rare. Walcott named the site the Burgess Shale, after nearby Mt. Burgess. He spent the summers between 1910-1917 excavating the quarry with the help of his family. He collected more than 65,000 specimens that were sent to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. They stayed there in drawers-along with the scientist's notes and photos-largely untouched for nearly half a century.

The quarries were reopened by the Geological Survey of Canada in 1966-67, and more fossil collections were made. Many new specimens were recovered, which instigated a restudy of the Burgess Shale fossils led by Harry Whittington of Cambridge University, England, along with his graduate students, Derek Briggs and Simon Conway Morris. Together they published papers describing most of the soft-bodies fossils in great detail.

To their surprise, they determined that many of the fossils could not be classified within our modern classification system. Instead, the scientists listed these strange ancient creatures as members of unknown groups -implying that there had been a greater diversity of animal forms half a billion years ago than there are today. These ideas continue to be refined today.

Recognition of the significance of the Burgess Shale led to its declaration as the 86th UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981. The fossils were made famous with Stephen J. Gould's best-selling book, Wonderful Life, in 1989. One of the world's leading experts on the fossils today is Dr. Desmond Collins of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, who continues to excavate the site.

The exhibit, The Burgess Shale: Evolution's Big Bang, was created by the Smithsonian Institution. It uses models, photographs, simple interactives, and specimens from the National Museum of Natural History's extensive collection to present the still-debated events and implications of the "Cambrian Explosion" and the importance of the Burgess Shale in its interpretation. The exhibit will be displayed at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture from November 20, 2004 to March 6, 2005.