View of the mountains and lakes from Walcott's quarry at the Burgess Shale.

Turning over half-billion-year-old stones at the Manitoba Museum

Turning over half-billion-year-old stones at the Manitoba Museum

Animals today are mindbogglingly diverse, encompassing flies and flamingoes, elephants and earthworms, sharks and snails, and of course, ourselves. It’s hard to even imagine a world before animals, or how such staggering diversity came to be.

My name is Dr. Joe Moysiuk and I am the new Curator of Palaeontology and Geology at the Manitoba Museum. It’s my job to reconstruct ancient worlds through scientific study of the evidence that remains – fossils and rocks – and bring them “back to life” for museum visitors. I’m particularly fascinated by the evolution of major groups of animals and have devoted the past several years to researching fossils from the Burgess Shale, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the world’s most significant palaeontological discoveries.

Famous shale

The Burgess Shale is located high in the mountains of Yoho and Kootenay National Parks in British Columbia. Fossils were discovered by workers during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s. Although a few sites were explored by earlier researchers, it wasn’t until 1909 that Charles D. Walcott of the Smithsonian Institution made the famed discovery of a particularly diverse excavation site and provided the name Burgess Shale after the nearby Mount Burgess. Subsequent expeditions by Harvard, the Geological Survey of Canada, and Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) have yielded large research collections that have been scrutinized by countless scientists and popularized in books like Wonderful Life by legendary palaeontologist Stephen J. Gould. Collection and research continues, notably at ROM, my previous institutional home.

The Burgess Shale fossils date back roughly 506 million years, to the Cambrian Period – long before the dinosaurs or even the earliest evidence of large lifeforms on land. At first glance, they are not particularly charismatic; most appear as small, dark stains on dark rocks and are difficult to see without special lighting conditions. Contrary to their modest appearance, these fossils have had an outsized impact on our understanding of the origin and evolution of animals.

Four people viewing a fossil in Walcott's quarry. The face of the quarry is a vertical cliff about 8 meters high

Walcott’s quarry today, showing the marks of 100 years of excavation.

Not your ordinary fossils

When I mention the word fossil, dinosaur bones may come to mind. Alternatively, you might recall seeing the shells of molluscs and corals in the Tyndall stone walls of buildings that dot the streets of Winnipeg or other Canadian cities. These sorts of hard, mineralized remains of organisms are resistant to decay, scavenging, and breakage, so they have a decent chance of persisting long enough to become fossilized. The softer parts of organisms, like eyes, digestive tracts, or brains tend to be lost long before they can be buried and preserved from further degradation.

However, there are some fossil deposits that defy these rules, preserving traces of the soft tissues of organisms alongside their mineralized bits. In technical parlance, we call these sites Konservat-Lagerstätten, deriving from an old German mining term for “conservation motherlode.” The Burgess Shale is one such Lagerstätte, and the exceptional quality and quantity of fossil material has made it among the most renowned.

A fossil of Stanleycaris, showing the head on the right and multisegmented body extending to the left. The eyes are large and situated on stalks. A pair of claws extend forward from the head and a circular mouth is visible. Inside the body we can see remains of the gut and nervous tissues

A specimen of Stanleycaris, a smaller relative of the more famous Anomalocaris. This fossil is exceptional even by the standards of the Burgess Shale – the dark matter in the head and extending into the bulbous eyes is the remains of the brain and associated nervous tissues. Photo by Jean-Bernard Caron, © Royal Ontario Museum, used with permission.

A pair of flattened jellyfish fossils with bell-shaped bodies lined with dozens of short tentacles.

A pair of Burgessomedusa phasmiformis, the oldest jellyfish known from the fossil record. These fossils were collected in the 1980s, but the species was only formally described last year. Photo by Jean-Bernard Caron, © Royal Ontario Museum, used with permission.

As you can imagine, soft tissue preservation provides unique insights about past life. For example, we recently uncovered fossilized elements of the nervous system of Stanleycaris hirpex, a distant relative of modern insects, spiders, and crabs, giving us extraordinary direct evidence of the form of the brain in the common ancestor of these disparate animals. We also find representatives of entirely soft bodied groups of organisms, which would never be found in a typical fossil deposit. For example, my colleagues and I recently described the oldest definitive swimming jellyfish.

The reasons behind the exceptional quality of preservation at the Burgess Shale, and other similar sites around the world, remain the subject of research. It’s generally thought that a combination of factors played a role: rapid burial of the organisms in undersea mud flows, low oxygen near the sea floor, and unusual sea water chemistry during this time in Earth’s history. Subsequently, chemical reactions during rock formation reduced the organic remains to carbon-rich traces which were resistant enough to survive for over half a billion years.

Aside from the quality of preservation, the age of the Burgess Shale makes it particularly significant. The Cambrian Period witnessed a spectacular diversification of animals. Essentially all major groups that are with us today can trace their roots back to this time. The Burgess Shale provides a window into life on Earth shortly after this pulse of animal diversification.

Opening new doors to ancient worlds

I started my museum career at a particularly exciting time. Field work at the Burgess Shale had just resulted in the discovery of a brand new Burgess Shale site in the vicinity of Marble Canyon in Kootenay National Park. This site lies a mere 40 km south of Walcott’s quarry, but differs substantially in terms of the fossil species present. For several summers between 2014 and 2022, I joined international crews in exploring the region and excavating several dig sites systematically. Access to the sites is challenging and mostly by helicopter. We would camp in these remote settings for 2-6 weeks at a time, hiking long distances to reach fossil-rich outcrops. The work was hard and physical, but the rewards were truly spectacular. In the early days of exploration, new fossil species tumbled out of broken shale on a near daily basis. Some of these finds have now been formally published, but many still await attention and will be the basis of years of research to come.

Two tents are visible on an alpine meadow in the foreground. Behind them, tall cliffs rise.

Campsite from 2018. Finding a flat area to pitch multiple tents can be challenging in the mountains.

Excavation site at the Burgess Shale, near Marble Canyon. We can see tarps, boxes, and various supplies scattered around an area where shale layers have been removed forming a platform. Below the platform are steep cliffs.

One of several excavation sites developed over the past decade in the vicinity of Marble Canyon, Kootenay National Park.

Joe Moysiuk standing on a rocky ledge, holding a rock saw. The saw blade is slicing through a piece of shale.

Using a rock saw to extract fossils from a block of shale.

Fossil of Marrella splendens, showing long, curving spines, antennae, and many pairs of feathery limbs.

A fossil of Marrella splendens, showing curving spines on the head, antennae, and numerous feather-like limbs. This animal is extremely common at the Burgess Shale and is a distant relative of insects and spiders.

Part of a large claw of Anomalocaris, thicker than a finger. We can see multiple segments bearing trident-shaped spines.

The feeding claw of Anomalocaris, one of the largest predators from the Burgess Shale. This animal belongs to an early branch in the arthropod group, close to the common ancestor of insects, spiders, and crabs.

A large net suspended below a helicopter lifts crates of fossils and equipment off a precarious rock ledge.

Getting fossils out of the mountains is no easy task! Here we employ a net suspended on a longline below a helicopter.

Given its protected status, collecting fossils at the Burgess Shale is by permit only. However, guided hikes are available to the intrepid fossil enthusiast through Parks Canada and the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation. For those unable to make the somewhat arduous journey to the site, a selection of Burgess Shale fossils are on permanent display in the Earth History Gallery of the Manitoba Museum.

As I begin my tenure here at the Manitoba Museum, I feel equally excited about the potential for fantastic scientific discoveries. A legacy of field work has yielded important collections from three Konservat-Lagerstätten here in Manitoba. At roughly 445 million year old, these deposits are slightly younger than the Burgess Shale. They therefore provide complementary snapshots of early animal diversification. I look forward to “digging into” these collections and sharing new insights in the coming years.

A large red introductory panel titled
A display case showcasing fossils from the Burgess Shale. Several specimens are mounted in a line, with a sliding magnifier for viewing.

The Burgess Shale display in the Manitoba Museum, Earth History Gallery, featuring a selection of different organisms.

Dr. Joe Moysiuk

Dr. Joe Moysiuk

Curator of Palaeontology & Geology

Joe Moysiuk recently completed his doctoral dissertation at the University of Toronto and Royal Ontario Museum. His expertise centers on the oldest animal fossils and insights they provide about the evolution…
Meet Dr. Joe Moysiuk

Time’s Waypoints 

By Dr. Graham Young, past Curator of Palaeontology & Geology

The Deep History of the Churchill Quartzite 

As we pass through life we accumulate scars, each of which tells a story about an event that affected us. This white line on my hand shows where I fell hard on a tree stump in Nova Scotia when I was 19 years old. That pain in my ankle reminds me of an injury from another fall 30 years later, on an oil-slicked seashore. The older we get, the more of these old scars and injuries we will accumulate.  

It is the same in the natural world. Very old natural things, whether they are living or inanimate, carry many sorts of evidence with them. In the case of rocks, this evidence can tell us the stories of all the events that affected a rock between the time it was formed and the present day. 

Manitoba is home to many very old rocks; at least 2/3 of our province has bedrock that is about 1.7 to 3.5 billion years old, dating from the mid part of Precambrian time. Many of these rocks are beautiful and memorable – consider examples such as the granites and schists of the Whiteshell, east of Winnipeg – but to my eye the most memorable is the Churchill quartzite. This is the blue-grey to dove grey stone that forms the sculptural, sinuous “whaleback” ridges on both sides of the mouth of the Churchill River near Hudson Bay, so often seen as the backdrops in photos of polar bears. 


A wide-angle view of a rocky landscape along a shoreline. Many large, scupltural ridges of light-coloured Churchill quartzite.

The Churchill quartzite has long been remarked upon by visitors to the Churchill area. It was first described and named by the Geological Survey of Canada geologist Robert Bell in 1880, and though the name “Churchill quartzite” was assigned so long ago, it has never received a formal scientific description, so the word ”quartzite” is not capitalized.  

The first waypoint of Churchill quartzite’s time travel was its formation. Although it is a “youngster” in comparison with some of the Precambrian rocks east of Lake Winnipeg, it is still deeply old. Somewhere around 1.8 billion years ago, what is now the Churchill area was covered by large rivers that flowed from newly rising mountains nearby. Since the riverbeds were steeply sloped, the rivers carried an abundance of coarse sediment: quartz grains, dark minerals such as mica and magnetite, and fragments of various rocks (some of which could be quite large). 

Close-up of a section of Churchill quartzite that has a rounded white peice of another stone in the middle. From the left edge, a hand holds a size scale into frame. Orange lichen is growing on the surface of the quartzite.

The Churchill quartzite is a metagreywacke, a metamorphosed “dirty sandstone” that can contain large rock fragments such as the rounded white piece in the middle of this photo. 

Where the flow of those rivers slowed, they deposited sediment. The Churchill quartzite contains evidence that it was deposited by flowing water, and that the flow was variable: features known as cross beds were formed as the sediment was laid down on angled or curved surfaces, in places such as river sandbars. Over long intervals of time, this deposited material was buried in more sediment, and pressure from the weight of that sediment turned it to stone. The sand, varied minerals, and rock fragments formed a dirty sandstone, known geologically as a greywacke. 

Close-up of a section of Churchill quartzite with dark scratch-like lines on the surface. Orange and light-green lichen grows long parts of the quartzite. In the upper right corner a size scale is laid on the rock’s surface.

Beautiful trough cross beds can be seen in the Churchill quartzite at Sloop Cove. The dark lines show where grains of heavy minerals such as magnetite were the first to fall out of the water as river flow slowed. 

Through yet more geological time, this greywacke was buried ever deeper, where it was subjected to heat and pressure from the ongoing geological activity in this region. This welded the sediment grains together, giving the rock the remarkable toughness for which it is prized today by people building railways and airports. The greywacke had been metamorphosed and became a metamorphic (changed) rock, the metagreywacke that we call the Churchill quartzite. 

Close-up of the surface of a smooth section of grey Churchill quartzite with a thick twisted quartz vein visible in white.

Twisted quartz veins in the Churchill quartzite show that it was subjected to great heat and pressure. 

As time continued to pass, the nearby mountains were worn flat by erosion, and the tough, deeply buried Churchill quartzite was slowly uplifted until it was again exposed at the Earth’s surface. For many millions of years, this bedrock was subject to the forces of erosion in a desert-like landscape; the rock surfaces were smoothed and weathered, and large boulder fields developed at the bases of quartzite slopes. 

Landscape photo of a rocky shoreline with a incline going up to boulders on the left edge from the waterline on the right edge.

Dolostone from the Ordovician Period was deposited around an ancient boulder field, at the foot of a scarp of Churchill quartzite. The old quartzite island was to the left in this photo, and the Ordovician sea was to the right. This is the site depicted in the Museum’s Ancient Seas exhibit. 

More than a billion years after the Churchill quartzite was formed, another waypoint was added to its time journey. The Churchill region was now near the equator, and a warm sea flowed in and covered the area. Water extended to the horizon in all directions, but the tough ridges of quartzite stood up above the water, so that they formed an archipelago of islands in that tropical sea. 

Map graphic showing the Churchill coastline along the Hudson’s Bay with brown markings along the shoreline where ridges of Churchill quartzite formed islands in the Ordovician tropical sea.

The ridges of Churchill quartzite (brown areas on this map of modern Churchill) formed islands in the Ordovician tropical sea. 

Close-up photo of a rock surface with several fossil corals in it. Along the middle of the left edge a scale card is placed on the rock.

These fossil corals show how tropical marine life proliferated against the quartzite shores. 

Photo of a crevice betweentwo sections of smooth grey rock where a section of uneven and chunky rock has developed.

A crevice in the quartzite scarp is filled with Ordovician dolostone, which is itself full of pieces of weathered quartzite! 

Around these islands, abundant sea life lived: creatures such as trilobites and giant cephalopods swam in the water, while corals proliferated in front of and against the quartzite shores. We see evidence of this sea life in Ordovician and Silurian age dolostones (rocks similar to limestones) and sandstones that date from about 450 to 440 million years ago; in some remarkable instances the fossil-rich rocks fill crevices in the quartzite surfaces!  

The sea became deeper, and during the Silurian and the subsequent Devonian Period, it is likely that the sculpted ridges of Churchill quartzite were again buried, with hundreds of metres of sedimentary rock laid down above them. An immense length of time passed, hundreds of millions of years, the sea was gone, and the thick sedimentary rocks above the quartzite were slowly eroded away by water and wind. 

About two and a half million years ago, a different erosional force arrived in the region. The Ice Age, also known as the Pleistocene glaciation, began, and large continental glaciers began to expand southward from the Arctic. These glaciers eventually covered much of North America, and in places they were two to four kilometres thick! The immense weight of this great thickness of ice gave it immense erosional power, and as it moved slowly southward across the land surface it deeply eroded and scoured the bedrock surfaces. 

Dr. Maureen Matthews staning at the right edge of the frame on a large flat rock in the ground with scratch or scrape-like markings along it.

Striations on a polished quartzite surface show the direction(s) of glacial ice movement. Here, Dr. Maureen Matthews demonstrates striations east of Churchill Airport. 

As was the case during earlier erosion intervals, the immense toughness of the Churchill quartzite meant that it fared better than the other rocks around it. The dolostones that overlaid and abutted the quartzite were heavily ground down, to the extent that they can be observed in only a few select places in the Churchill area. The quartzite ridges themselves, in spite of their hardness, show considerable evidence of glacial erosion: in most places their surfaces were polished by the ice and show striations, lines and grooves that demonstrate the varied directions of ice flow as the rock fragments stuck into the bottom of the glacier scraped the top of the bedrock. 

An individual standing at the top of a tall rocky rise from the sand.

East of Halfway Point, the quartzite ridge along the shore has the features of a roche moutonée: it is curved and polished on the north side (left), while the south side (right) shows many places where pieces of the rock were plucked and carried away by the flowing glacier. 

In some locations you can see other features characteristic of glacial erosion: a roche moutonnée, or sheepback, shows where a large chunk was plucked out of the downstream side of a quartzite ridge, while the upstream side of the same ridge was smoothly polished. Chatter marks are smaller features, crescent-shaped gouges that show evidence of chipping by rock fragments on the base of the glacier; these are typically at right angles to the direction of ice flow (which is itself demonstrated by the striations, or lines on the bedrock surface). 

In southern Canada the Ice Age began to end roughly 12,000 years ago, and by 8,000 years ago the ice in northern Manitoba had melted to the extent that the Tyrrell Sea had formed – this forerunner of Hudson Bay was a huge body of water that covered the low-lying land that had been pushed down by the weight of the glaciers. Our ridges of Churchill quartzite were now again under deep salt water; old beach ridges show that the Tyrrell Sea extended many tens of kilometres south and west of Churchill. 

Photograph focusing on a rocky surface with orange lichen growing near graffiti scratched onto the rock reading, “I•Wood / 1757” and “J. Horner / 1746”. Several people stand out of focus at the top of the frame.

At Sloop Cove, near the 18th century British graffiti, glacial chatter marks are outlined by the growth of orange lichens. 

Landscape photo looking out over a pebbled shoreline. In the distance a jut of land has industrial buildings on it.

Near Fort Prince of Wales, old beach ridges are far above the modern sea level. 

Landscape view over a shoreline overed in large rocks jutting out from the grass. Several individuals scramble about on the rocks.

In the 21st century, there is no way we could overwinter a ship in Sloop Cove. 

This region has been rising ever since, and even today the Churchill area continues to rise at a rate of almost a metre a century! This continued uplift is shown by the relationship between some human structures and the quartzite ridges. For example, old mooring rings at Sloop Cove, near the Churchill River, show where people were able to haul sloops (small ships) out of the river in the 18th century, to protect them from ice during the long northern winter. The cove has risen so much in the past 300 years that there is no way a ship could be hauled out in the same place today! 

Sloop Cove is one piece of the final chapter in the saga of the Churchill quartzite. The sinuous ridges have actually been associated with humanity for several millennia, ever since Pre-Dorset Inuit people living some 3500 years ago hunted marine mammals from what was then an archipelago of quartzite islands in the Tyrrell Sea. More recently, the men of the Hudson’s Bay Company quarried large blocks of this tough stone for construction of the impressive 18th century Fort Prince of Wales and Cape Merry Battery, which flank either side of the mouth of the Churchill River. Those men also carved the names of many men and ships into the cross-bedded quartzite at Sloop Cove. 

Photograph focusing on a rocky surface with orange and light-green lichen growing near graffiti scratched onto the rock. The nearest graffiti reads, “Richard C / T+H 1750 / Geo:Holt / 1771”.

Eighteenth century graffiti at Sloop Cove. 

View over a ridge across green landscape with intermitant evergreen trees towards a quarry site with dust blowing in the wind.

In 2022 a huge amount of Churchill quartzite was being crushed at Airport Cove, to provide ballast stone for improvements to the Hudson Bay Railway. 

Several individuals standing near the site of a ruined building. Some people look over the stone walls, now only a few feet high, into the ruin itself.

Some human usage of Churchill quartzite has been quite whimsical. This structure at Churchill, which looks like an ancient castle ruin, represents a never-completed stone hotel. The walls, built directly onto quartzite bedrock, include cobbles and boulders of many different kinds of stone. 

In the 20th and 21st centuries, Churchill quartzite has been put to many uses by enterprising humans: it makes superb ballast stone for the Hudson Bay Railway, it has been used to construct the large weir that controls flow of the Churchill River, it underlies the runways of Churchill Airport, and it appears as a backdrop in all those wonderful photos and videos of polar bears in their natural habitat! 

What does the future hold, I wonder, for such a remarkable and robust geological formation? In any case, it will be here for many millennia to come. 

This post draws on images and observations from our very successful August, 2022, Museum research trip to the Churchill area, which allowed our group to develop many ideas for new exhibit collaborations. A few of the photos are from earlier paleontological fieldwork in the Churchill area over the past 26 years.  

A Bison Rubbing Stone in the Prairies Gallery: How Did That Boulder Get There?

By Dr. Graham Young, past Curator of Palaeontology & Geology


Bison rubbing stones are icons of the prairies. These large stones were originally transported south by Ice Age glaciers, then left behind on the prairies when the glaciers melted and receded roughly 12,000 years ago. They are therefore considered to be a form of fieldstone, and such large blocks of fieldstone are commonly called glacial erratics.

In the millennia since the glaciers left this region, rubbing stones have undergone a lengthy and intensive polishing process. These are boulders that were tall enough that they were made use of by itchy bison, who needed to shed their heavy winter coats or scratch after being bitten by flies and mosquitoes. The rubbing by bison over such a long time interval, along with the oils from the animals’ hides, gives rubbing stones a distinctive patina, and a rubbing stone is typically surrounded by a ring of flattened, eroded earth.

In the foreground a large mottled grey-brown boulder in the Museum Galleries. In the background is a diorama with two Pronghorns walking across.

The bison rubbing stone is beside the Pronghorn Diorama, at the entrance to the Prairies Gallery.

A large grey boulder in the grass next to a sign angled away from the camera that cannot be read. The top and sides of the boulder are slightly rounded.

A rubbing stone at the Star Mound historic site.

For our new Prairies Gallery, we knew that we wanted to include this sort of defining prairie element as a full-sized touchable piece, but we also knew that a cast or sculpted stone just wouldn’t do it. We had to acquire a real stone, and it had to be light enough that it could be moved into our gallery and placed safely on the gallery floor for an indefinite period of time. Since the gallery’s weight allowance is quite limited, how could this possibly be done?

As was the case for our fieldstone wall, we discussed this with stonemason Todd Braun quite early in the gallery development process. Although we thought that there should be a real boulder in the gallery, we also knew that it could not be a recognized rubbing stone, as those are heritage objects that should be left undisturbed in their original locations. Instead, Todd suggested that he could acquire a boulder of suitable size and rock type from gravel pits in the Morden area, and that he would prepare the boulder so that it could meet the floor loading limits and other requirements for placement in our gallery.

A person wearing winter gear smiles at the camera and leans against a large boulder that comes as high as their shoulder.

Kevin Brownlee, Curator of Archaeology, examined the stone when we first saw it outside Todd Braun’s workshop in February, 2020.

Close up on the detail and texture of a large mottled stone. In the bottom left corner a hand holds a lens cap into frame for scale.

The stone is a boulder of migmatite, a rock type that exhibits coloured bands made up of different minerals.

An individual leaning inside a partially hollowed out boulder.

Todd located the stone in late 2019, and we first saw it during a visit to his workshop in February, 2020. It is a very substantial boulder of migmatite, a high-grade metamorphic rock with aligned layers of minerals, which was formed under great heat and pressure deep in the Earth. Todd explained how he planned to cut off one end of the boulder so that it would be lighter and so that it would be stable standing on the floor. He would then use cutting and grinding power tools to hollow out the stone, starting from that flat end. It would therefore still look like a large solid boulder, but it would actually be more like a thick-shelled egg, with much of its internal mass replaced by air.

Once we had a plan in place, the boulder had to wait until Todd had the time to prepare it. He was busy completing the fieldstone wall for our gallery, and was not able to turn his attention to the boulder until the fall of 2020. The cutting and hollowing of the stone turned out to be very labour intensive; the rock was very hard, and Todd was also afraid that fractures might develop if he tried to remove too much rock at once, or pushed too hard on it. It would have been a disaster to have the boulder go to pieces at this stage!


Todd Braun used power tools to hollow out the boulder (this is a still from a video by Todd).

Todd told us that we were getting our money’s worth, since the job was more work than he had anticipated, but the hollowing out was completed by late November. He was also able to put a bit of a polish on the outer surface of the stone, to mimic the effect of rubbing by thousands of bison.

Todd used his tractor to lift the boulder into the back of his truck. Very early one morning, he drove to Winnipeg before there was significant traffic on the roads. The truck was backed into our loading dock, the hoist was attached to the heavy-duty straps that Todd had placed beneath the boulder, and the stone was lifted very smoothly onto a pallet jack. We were grateful at this stage that the boulder had lost so much of its original weight!

A large hollowed out boulder being lifted with straps and chains by a bulldozer.

The boulder was hollowed out and ready to travel to Winnipeg (photo by Todd Braun).

A large boulder secured in the back of a white pick-up truck.

The boulder was lifted into Todd’s truck . . . (photo by Todd Braun).

A white pick-up truck backed into an enclosed loading zone with a large boulder in the back of the truck.

. . . and arrived at our loading dock very early in the morning (photo by Randy Mooi).

We had a crew of four on hand to assist Todd with moving the boulder into the gallery: an expert construction manager, and three curators to provide the grunt labour. Since we had measured all the doorways and halls in advance of this move, we knew that there would be a few tricky spots during the stone’s travel through the building, but that it should just fit through all of those.

A large boulder being lifted with a dock hoist from the back of a white pick-up truck. An individual wearing a high-vis vest guides the boulder off the truck.

The loading dock hoist was used to lift the boulder from the back of the truck (photo by Randy Mooi)…

Two individuals wearing high-vis vests observe as a large boulder is lifted over a loading dock platform with a dock hoist operated by one of them.

… and to position it on the platform, where the pallet jack could be lined up underneath (photo by Randy Mooi).

First, we trundled it down a long corridor and through the Museum’s workshops, then out into the Welcome Gallery. Since there was new flooring in the galleries, we had to begin laying down sheets of board when we left the workshop space. There were several large plywood sheets, so it was a matter of laying down a row of boards along the planned path, then lifting each board after we passed over it, and moving it to the front of the other boards so that there would always be a safe surface for the pallet jack.

The stone turned out to have a bit of a “mind of its own” when it came to the direction our route would take, and there was some manoeuvring required to get it lined up with the doorway that would take us into the Winnipeg Gallery area. This gallery was another tight spot, and after some discussion and changing of direction, the boulder slipped through. We then had a clear run to its final location by the Pronghorn Diorama.

Three individuals in high-vis vests guide a large boulder secured on a pallet jack down a hallway.

The boulder began its journey down the corridor toward the workshops (photo by Randy Mooi).

Three individuals in high-vis vests maneuver a large boulder secured on a pallet jack through the Welcome Gallery, past the Bison Diorama.

In the Welcome Gallery, the stone came as close to bison as it would ever be in its time at the Museum! Note the sheets of plywood protecting the gallery floor (photo by Randy Mooi).

Three individuals in high-vis vests guide a large boulder secured on a pallet jack through a narrow space in the Winnipeg Gallery.

In the Winnipeg Gallery, there was discussion of how we could get the boulder past some exhibits.

One individual wearing a high-vis vest braces a large boulder in place as two other individuals kneel either side to remove wooden braces.

The pallet jack was rolled to the location that had been selected for the boulder’s final position, and the stone was gently (VERY gently!) shifted onto some large wedges that Todd had brought along for the task. By levering with heavy pry bars, the wedges could be gradually removed and the boulder settled into place.

The next time you are in our new Prairies Gallery, I hope you will take a good look at the rubbing stone and other exhibits. Many Museum exhibits may look like simple things, but the stories behind them are often quite complicated!


The last wedges were removed as the boulder was lowered into place (photo by Randy Mooi).

Building Blocks of the Plains: A Fieldstone Wall in the Prairies Gallery 

By Dr. Graham Young, past Curator of Palaeontology & Geology


Beginning in 2012, The Museum’s curators worked together to plan exhibits for the Bringing Our Stories Forward project (BOSF). As we travelled around the grasslands region to prepare ideas for our new Prairies Gallery, we developed a list of topics that would be essential for a representation of this region. We rapidly agreed on some things that had to go into the Gallery: prairie vegetation, the importance of wind, Indigenous prehistory (and most particularly mound-building cultures), and several other topics. One of these was fieldstone. 


Photograph of the exterior wall of an abandoned stone house with an open window frame and a worn shingled roof.

A wall of the Brockinton house shows some of the geological variety of fieldstone types. 

What is fieldstone, and why did we think it was essential? 

When European settlers arrived on the prairies, they wanted to build permanent houses and other buildings. They were now in a region where there were almost no trees away from the river valleys, so material for wooden houses could be scarce. Many settlers came from parts of Europe where houses were built from stone that was quarried from solid bedrock, but on the Manitoba prairie the bedrock was either buried far below the land surface, or it was soft Cretaceous shale that was useless as a building stone. 

There was however, a building stone resource that was readily available: loose fieldstone boulders, which lay on the land surface or could be readily found by digging near riverbanks. Fieldstone is a mixture of many kinds of stone. These stones formed as bedrock at  different times, under varied conditions, and include igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rock types. 

A church building built of varied fieldstone with a distinctive black and red steeple.

Some fieldstone structures in southwestern Manitoba are much grander than the Brockinton house. These photos show St. Paul’s United Church in Boissevain, built as a Methodist church in 1893. 

Looking up at the wall of a fieldstone building with two windows side by side. At the bottom of the frame, above the doorway, a datestone reads “Methodist Church / 1893”.

Doorway of St. Paul’s United Church in Boissevain.

Like the settlers, fieldstone had immigrated to the prairies. During the Ice Age (Pleistocene Epoch), huge glaciers covered Manitoba. Glacial ice flowed southward, pulling blocks of stone out of solid bedrock. Blocks (glacial erratics), left behind when the ice melted, are used as fieldstone. Most fieldstone thus originated far to the north of where it is found today. 

Map graphic of Manitoba showing where in the province stones dating from certain ages came from to arrive at Bockington House in the south-western corner of the province.

Most fieldstone in southwest Manitoba comes from bedrock far to the north. This stone dates from the Precambrian (over 541 million years ago) and Paleozoic (541–252 million years ago) ages. In the Ice Age (2.6 million–10,000 years ago), the stones were picked up by glaciers and moved great distances.

Looking at a sandy bank with stones embedded in it. A short spade stands propped against the tall bank.

Fieldstone occurs with other sediment in glacial deposits, such as here in the Assiniboine River valley near St-Lazare. 

Close-up looking at the joints between stones in a fieldstone wall.

Fieldstone blocks of variable size are mortared together in a wall of the Brockinton house. 

Since fieldstone was a distinctive natural material seen across many parts of the prairies, and since it was used by settlers when they built many of the early buildings, it was clear to us that the fieldstone story should be included in our Prairies Gallery. We already planned to build an exhibit about the Brockinton National Historic site, a significant precontact bison kill site in the Souris Valley south of Melita, so it made sense that we also create an adjacent exhibit that would represent a wall of the Brockinton house, a late 19th century structure that sits at the top of the slope above the archaeological site. 

But how could we build this exhibit? Stone is really dense, and a mass of solid stone would have been far too heavy to be supported by the floor in our gallery space. Stone is also not really a topic that would have been suited to an animated video like our beautiful Prairies Mural Wall, and a flat panel display would have been just that: flat. We needed some way to allow visitors to observe and touch the genuine stone, in a setting that imitated a real fieldstone wall.  

Fortunately, in our various travels around southern Manitoba we had met Todd Braun, a stonemason who works in the Altona area. By consulting with Todd and with our exhibit design team, a plan took form: a frame would be fabricated from steel clad in plywood, and Todd would prepare the stones to attach to that frame, reducing their weight by slicing them thin. 

Large selection of blocks of fieldstone laid out in a cleared area on snowy ground.

These are some of the fieldstone blocks that had been chosen by Todd Braun as possible raw material for our fieldstone wall. 

A selection of fieldstone blocks laid out together in a general square shape.

The selected stones were laid out so that we could see how they would fit into the wall. 

A 3-D metal frame in a standing U shape in a workspace.

A steel framework was fabricated in three sections to serve as a “skeleton” for the wall structure. 

Todd and I selected stones to represent the great variety of fieldstone seen in southwestern Manitoba. Many of these came from boulders and cobbles that Todd had found during his visits to various gravel pits. A few were rocks that we found together, and in one or two instances I went to other geologists to request examples of very particular rock types.

Once we had agreed on the stones to be used, Todd prepared them using traditional techniques, breaking each rock with a hammer until it had a blocky shape. These blocks were laid out in their approximate relative positions for the wall. After a fitted layout was achieved, Todd patiently took each block and trimmed it with a saw so that the visible surface was effectively a “veneer” with only a few centimetres of thickness. These veneers were then attached to the steel and plywood frame using adhesives and metal hardware, and the space between them was covered in traditional mortar. The “corner stones” were a particular challenge, since they had to be cut in such a way that they would look like solid three dimensional blocks once the wall was assembled. 

Thinned blocks of fieldstone being laid out on a section of metal frame.

The wall sections were tipped on their side to allow the sliced stones to be placed. Note how the corner stones have been cut so that they will look like three-dimensional blocks. 

View underneath the 3-D metal frame, now lying flat with thinned fieldstone blocks placed on the surface. Inside it is hollow other than support beams.

This view from the underside shows the substantial steel structure that underlies the wall. 

The rectangular base of the frame now with fieldstone blocks attached, being lifted with chains by a tractor.

The completed base section of the wall is light enough to be lifted by Todd’s tractor. 

To allow the wall to be assembled in Todd’s workshop prior to its installation in our gallery, the frame was actually built in three sections. This made each piece light enough to be readily moved, and small enough to fit through the smallest doorway between the Museum’s loading dock and our new Prairies Gallery. Very early one morning, Todd arrived at the Museum with the completed wall sections on his trailer. These were hoisted into the loading dock, and rolled through the Museum to the wall’s permanent gallery location. Todd and our construction team had created an ingenious hoist system that would allow each upper wall section to be lifted into position on the base section. Once the wall sections were in place, they were bolted together, and Todd covered the joins with fresh mortar. 


Two “pillars” of frame with fieldstone attached to the exterior being moved into place in the new Prairies Gallery with a hoist and girder system.

In the Museum, the upper wall sections were attached to a hoist and girder system so that the base section could be wheeled into place beneath them. 

Two individuals pump up pallet jacks with the rectangular base of the metal frame and fieldstone wall on them.

The base section was rolled in on two pallet jacks. 

Three individuals maneuver the rectanulgar base of the metal frame and fieldstone wall under the two side pillars, which are hanging in place on a joist and girder system, using two pallet jacks.

The finished wall looks very much like the walls you can see at Brockinton House and on other buildings in southwest Manitoba, and it beautifully demonstrates both fieldstone construction and the geological variety of this fascinating material. As is the case for some other Museum exhibits, there is no evidence of the incredibly complicated and lengthy development and construction process that allowed this structure to “look like the real thing.” 

The constructed fieldstone wall in the new Prairies Gallery next to descriptive exhibit panels and other displays.

The finished wall is surrounded by interpretive materials, telling the fieldstone story. 

Weird Tasks: Moving the Glyptodont 

By Dr. Graham Young, past Curator of Palaeontology & Geology


As we have worked our way through the pliosaur exhibit project, we have come up against a series of problems that have required novel solutions. About a month ago we carried out a very strange task, and one that none of us had ever had to do before: we needed to move the glyptodont. 

Before I explain how we did this, perhaps I had better backtrack a bit, as you probably have some questions at this point: “What is a glyptodont, anyway? Where did the Museum get its glyptodont and why did you need to move it?” 

A graphic illustration showing an individual standing next to a fossil of a creature with a large armoured shell and tail (Glyptodont) displayed on a raised platform.

The glyptodont, as featured in Ward’s catalogue from 1866. 

Black and white photograph of a museum gallery with many display cases and platforms. In the foreground, bottom left corner is a fossil of a creature with a large armoured shell and tail (Glyptondont) on its platform. In the background, upper right corner, is a large fossil standing on it’s hind legs with arms raised in front of it ( Megatherium) on its platform.

The Redpath Museum in 1925, showing both the glyptodont (left) and the ground sloth (right). (photo: McCord Museum).

Photograph looking into the Manitoba Museum Earth History Gallery from behind the display platform holding the Megatherium. In the background, to the right, is the glyptodont on its display platform near descriptive panels with illustrations of the globe.

The ground sloth and glyptodont, in their positions in the Earth History Gallery from 1973 to 2016.

Glyptodonts were creatures that lived during the Ice Age, that have been described as “fridge-size armadillos,” although the largest ones could perhaps have been called “armadillos the size of Volkswagen Bugs.” They were heavy, armoured creatures that weighed up to two tonnes. They spent their time lumbering around the forests and plains of South America and southern North America,  eating trees and grasses. Glyptodonts became extinct about 10,000 years ago during the “Quaternary Extinction Event,” at about the same time as giant ground sloths and other large mammals, probably as a result of climate change and hunting by humans. 

Our particular glyptodont is a replica of a fossil that belonged to the genus Glyptodon, and like our ground sloth it came to the Museum by a long and circuitous route. The glyptodont and the ground sloth were among the earliest casts of big vertebrate fossils, produced during the late 19th century by Ward’s Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, New York. Our ground sloth (Megatherium) was supplied to the Redpath Museum in Montreal in time for the opening of that institution in 1882, while the glyptodont joined it in Montreal some years later. 

By the 1960s, the Redpath was renovating, and these immense casts were removed and needed a home. The Manitoba Museum was under construction, so the casts were transferred to us and shipped to Winnipeg. They were assembled when the Earth History Gallery was constructed, and were there in time for the gallery opening in 1973. For the forty-plus years since then, both of these huge and historic casts have stood in place on the platforms that had been constructed for them. 

Now, in 2016, we are renovating that part of the gallery so that we can install our exciting fossil pliosaur, and to make space we have had to move the glyptodont. Since this replica had been in place since long before any of us worked here, we did not have any advance knowledge of how it should be handled, and since it is an irreplaceable artefact dating from  over a century ago, we considered this move with some trepidation. Since it turned out that the glyptodont is also immensely heavy, having been constructed of plaster, wood, and iron in the best 19th century fashion, our trepidation was well placed. 


Close-up photograph of the Glyptodont: a four-legged creature with a large, rounded, armoured shell, and thick armoured tail reaching the ground.

Detail of the glyptodont, as it was from 1973 to 2016.

As has been the case with handling the plesiosaur specimen, our technical staff love this sort of challenge, and Bert Valentin and Sean Workman had come up with solutions in the best “jury rigged” manner. Back when we installed our mineral exhibit, Bert had modified an engine hoist so that we could move our giant amethyst specimen, which weighs close to half a tonne. Now, with a fossil cast that weighs about the same amount (we weren’t able to weigh it, so this is a best guess), Bert re-modified that hoist as a glyptodont-lifter. The following sequence of photographs shows how it went – the process was much more nerve-wracking than it appears here! 

Two individuals sit either side of the Glyptodont watching as another individual works lying on the display platform under the shell.

Bert Valentin crawls under the glyptodont to saw the head off, while Janis Klapecki and Sean Workman assist. The head will be taken out for conservation work, while we move the glyptodont’s carapace. 

The Glyptodont shell from the side with beams under it and strapped either side of it ready to be lifted off its platform using an enginge hoist.

The engine hoist is placed over the glyptodont, which is attached by thick straps attached to steel beams. The long pieces of wooden rail will allow us to control the tipping of the carapace when it is unbolted from the platform. 

View from the front of the Glyptodont shell showing steel beams running insider it at either side and attached with thick yellow straps to the engine hoist above. Bubble wrap placed on the shell protects it from the friction of the straps.

An end-on view shows how the steel beams are passed under and through the glyptodont. 

A display platform with a large fossil standing on its hind legs with its tail stretching behind it (Megatherium). The fossil’s head and arms are out of frame. A wooden additon has been added to the platform to the right of the Megatherium and a cardboard cutout in the shape of the Glyptodont lies on the top of the new addition.

Marc Hebert had built this extension to the ground sloth’s platform. A cardboard cutout shows the location to which we will move the glyptodont. 

Three individuals work together to move a large Glyptodont carapace onto a wheeled cart from a platform using an engine hoist lift.

Before Sean can begin to hoist the replica, Bert adjusts the attachments. 

Four individuals work together around the Glyptodont carapace, now being moved using the engine hoist. They hold it steady either side of the carapace with wooden rails attached to the support beams running under the shell.

It is lifted, and the scary part of the operation begins! 

The engine hoist carrying the Glyptodont carapace backed against its ne platform space beside the Megatherium fossil. Three individuals work to keep it balanced as they move it.

Sean rolls the hoist, while Bert and I use the rails to keep the carapace steady. 

On the left, two individuals stand beside an engine hoist with the Glyptodont carapace strapped to it. On the right, Dr. Graham Young stands on the new platform looking down at where the Glyptodont is to be moved.

Contemplating just how we are going to swing that heavy fragile antique up onto the platform… 

One indivudal kneels at the back of the engine hoist to watch under the Glyptodont as two other individuals use the wooden rails strapped either side of the Glyptodont to guide it into place over the platform.

…and here we go, using the cart to prop the base supports. 

Four individuals works together to lift the Glyptodont carapace onto the wooden platform, holding the wooden rails stapped either end of it.

Traditional muscle power is used to slide the glyptodont to its final location. 

Two indivduals stand either end of the new platform looking at the Glyptodont carapace, now in place.

The replica is now attached in place, ready for the rest of the exhibit to be completed around it. 

Left Behind in Airport Cove 

By Dr. Graham Young, past Curator of Palaeontology & Geology


If you think about how Museum paleontologists get fossils, you might guess that we go out and find where the fossils are, extract all of them from the rock and sediment, and return them to the Museum. Certainly that is what we do where fossils are scarce, but in many instances our job really consists of deciding what to leave behind. Our specialists at the Manitoba Museum are called curators, and a curator by definition has to be able to select what is needed for collections and exhibits. 

Photo looking out over a rock landscape with low pools of water. A group of indviduals are scattered around looking at the rocks

Our field group, walking across dolostone beds in the Silurian part of the cove.  

This fact was really brought home to me in the past couple of weeks, as we revisited sites in Airport Cove, the stretch of shoreline north of the airport at Churchill. Airport Cove covers a large area, with many patches of bedrock spread across the shoreline. These patches of rock allow us to sample many different sedimentary beds from the end of the Ordovician Period and the beginning of the Silurian Period, roughly 445-435 million years ago. 

Landscape view over a rocky stretch of ground leading to the open water in the distance.

In the cove, the rock seems to go on almost forever. 

The rocks in the cove were deposited as sediment in warm tropical seas, so fossils are plentiful in many of them. With such an embarrassment of riches we have to be selective every time we go out in the cove; if I collected every decent fossil, we would need an entire freight train to get them to Winnipeg!  And then, where could we possibly store them? 

Close-up on rock surface with two shell fossils embedded in it. A size scale card is placed in frame along the bottom.

Two examples of the large Silurian brachiopod (lamp shell) Virgiana decussata.

As a result of our previous work here, many examples of the “standard” fossils from Airport Cove are already resident in the Museum’s collections, and this time we were looking for very specific and rare things. So we would walk around the cove each day, considering and photographing the more common sorts of fossils. Some of these are old friends, on blocks of stone that I can remember being in the same place ten or fifteen years ago. Others were new to me, but I can hope to see them again if I get back here. And then there are the few fossils that are so good that they must go to the Museum; one of these is shown at the end of this piece. 

Close-up photo of a section of rock with many small fossil pieces embedded in it. A size scale card is placed in frame along the top.

Abundant pieces of auloporids, Silurian “organ pipe” corals, in a dolostone bed low in the modern intertidal zone.

If you are ever in the Churchill area and wish to go looking for fossils, please follow all  guidelines on polar bear safety! We had to leave our work area at Airport Cove twice last week as there were bears nearby, and on one occasion a mother and cub walked right through our site very shortly after we got into the truck. 

Photograph of a section of rock with an elongated tube-shaped fossil in the surface. A size scale card is placed on the rock beside the fossil.

Old friends: we have been walking past this block of Ordovician stone for the past fifteen years or more. The elongate fossil on the left is the central tube (siphuncle) of a nautiloid cephalopod, while that on the right is an tall aulacerid stromatoporoid (sponge). 

Close-up photo of a section of rock with a curved U shaped fossil in the surface. A size scale card is placed in frame along the top.

The pygidium (tail) of the Ordovician trilobite Isotelus.

Close-up photo of a section of rock with dark lichens growing on the surface. Two fossils are embedded in the rock, on round and swirled, the other rounded on one side. A size scale card is placed in frame along the left edge.

Another example of the gastropod Maclurina manitobensis (lower), with an unidentified fossil that might be a stromatoporoid sponge.

A section of rock with half of a round, swirled fossil embedded in it. A quarter is placed on the rock’s surface for scale.

The one we couldn’t leave behind: this beautiful Ordovician coiled nautiloid cephalopod is now in transit to Winnipeg, along with the other fossils we collected. 

Landscape photograph looking out over a rocky shoreline at the water’s edge.

The end of the cove.

The Fossils Surround Us 

By Dr. Graham Young, past Curator of Palaeontology & Geology


Those of us who live in Winnipeg know that fossils are never far away. Many Winnipeg structures feature surfaces clad in Tyndall Stone, a fossil-rich dolomitic limestone of Late Ordovician age (about 450 million years old). Tyndall Stone covers public buildings such as the Manitoba Legislative Building and the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and commercial buildings in the downtown core, but it can also be seen in thousands of homes in Winnipeg: in walls, steps, and fireplaces. 

Thus, it is hardly surprising that the Museum and the adjacent Centennial Concert Hall both use Tyndall Stone inside and out. Of course Tyndall Stone fossils are represented in our Earth History Gallery, but if you think about it, it is odd that there are so many more “museum-grade specimens” exposed to the weather on the outside of the building. On the inside, as these photos show, we sometimes cover up beautiful fossils with the detritus of everyday existence: signs, fountains, alarms, and thermostats. In part, this is because the fossils are so abundant that it is hard to avoid them when placing objects, but it may also be that they are so commonplace here that people ignore them and take them for granted. 

Maybe someday we will add interpretative signage to some of the better and more accessible fossils on and in the Museum, but that would be a big project to undertake. In the meantime, here is a sampling of a few of the good ones.

Photograph of a Tyndall Stone wall with intermitant fossils embedded in it, and an EXIT sign in the upper right corner.

The hallway near the elevators may look like an unprepossessing remnant of the 1960s, but those mottled walls are thin slabs of Tyndall Stone. This stone, quarried by Gillis Quarries Limited at Garson, Manitoba,  is rich in fossils representing life from an ancient tropical seafloor. 

Close-up of a clock fixed to a Tyndall Stone wall with a white fossil under the bottom left corner of the clock.

Geologically, Tyndall Stone is part of the Selkirk Member of the Red River Formation; this bedrock formation underlies much of southern Manitoba, but it is only exposed in certain places such as in cliffs along Lake Winnipeg, and in the Tyndall Stone Quarries at Garson. Behind this clock, the darker mottles represent burrows in the ancient seafloor, made by millions of little arthropods or worms. The white structure to the lower left is the colonial coral Protrochiscolithus. 

Close-up on a emergency “Break Glass for Key” fixture attached to a Tyndall Stone wall. Beneath the fixture is a large rounded fossil of a stromatoporoid sponge.

The big brown blob beside the elevator is a stromatoporoid sponge. To its lower right, a smaller dome-shaped stromatoporoid (brown dome) was encrusted by the tabulate coral Protrochiscolithus (white), and to the right is a honeycomb rugose coral (Crenulites?). 

Close-up photo of a Tyndall Stone wall. On the left, edge a red fire alarm box is fixed to the wall. To the right, is a horn-shaped fossil of the chain coral Catenipora.

The pattern in the upper right represents the chain coral Catenipora, which grew on the ancient seafloor (a place with no risk of fire!). 

Close-up of a water fountain. On its left, at the edge of the frame, is a small, light-coloured fossil.

The white thing beside the water fountain is an excellent example of a rugose coral (horn coral). 

Close -up of a light and bell alarm fixture in a Tyndall Stone wall. Below is is a dome-shaped fossil of the colonial coral Protrochiscolithus.

The ancient seafloor was mostly soft and muddy, but many of the creatures required firm or hard substrates. Since substrate was at a premium, animals often grew on top of one another. The dome-shaped structure to the lower left in this photo represents the colonial coral Protrochiscolithus (white part), which grew on top of a stromatoporoid sponge (brown part). 

Close-up of a thermostat fixed to a Tyndall Stone wall partially covering a horn-shaped fossil cephalopod.

As common as dirt: there are so many fossils in these walls that some very good ones, such as this cephalopod, have been covered by things like this thermostat. 

Photograph looking up a tall exterior wall made of Tydnall Stone.

Since there are so many fossils in the relatively small area of the foyer walls, imagine how many there are on the outside of the Museum!