Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

8: Dating Methods – Relative and Absolute Dating

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    Learning Objectives

    By the end of this chapter, you will be able to:

    • Compare and contrast relative and absolute dating techniques
    • Describe several dating techniques, including when and where each would likely be used and their limitations
    • Explain the principle of radioactive decay and how radiometric dating techniques use it to determine the absolute age of archaeological evidence

    • 8.1: Introduction to Dating Methods
      Advanced dating techniques now allow archaeologists to establish when sites were occupied and artifacts were made. We can determine when items were discarded, plants were harvested, wood and other items were burned, and tools were made. How specific these dates can be depends on the technique used. Most provide dates as ranges of time, and the ranges are subject to a margin of error (e.g., 10,000–20,000 years ago +/– 2,000 years).
    • 8.2: Activity 1 - Stratigraphic Dating and the Harris Matrix
      Relative dating methods establish the date of something as older or younger than something else rather than anchoring its age to an absolute, scaled timeline as in absolute dating. So, we determine the sequence of at least two things (two events, two deposits, etc.) and establish what happened first, what happened next, and so on.
    • 8.3: Activity 2 - Stylistic and Frequency Seriation
      Stylistic and frequency seriations are important tools archaeologists use to understand how artifact shapes and styles change over time. Once a stylistic seriation is established for a region, new sites can be classified and cross-dated based on where the new artifacts fit into the master sequence. Frequency seriations record the number of artifacts of a particular style or type found, allowing archaeologists to observe a sequence of stylistic changes and infer applicable cultural changes.
    • 8.4: Activity 3 - Pottery Seriation
      Seriation was frequently used by archaeologists working in the classificatory-historical paradigm during the first half of the twentieth century since they were interested in reconstructing cultural histories in relation to time and space. It lays the foundation for further research questions regarding function, process, change, and explanation. In this exercise, you will use frequency seriation to reconstruct a culture’s history.
    • 8.5: Activity 4 - Dating Conversions
      Historical dates are expressed as AD (Anno domini—“in the year of the Lord”), BC (Before Christ), BCE (Before Common Era), BP (Before Present), and YA (years ago). This exercise gives you an opportunity to practice making basic conversions of dates from conventions commonly used outside of scientific disciplines (AD/BC or BCE and YA) to BP, the most accepted form used in science.