Methods of absolute dating

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Take advantage of this free information but please support CMI as God provides. Archaeologists use many different techniques to determine the age of a particular artifact, site, or part of a site.

Stratigraphy is based on the law of superposition--like a layer cake, the lowest layers must have been formed first.In other words, artifacts found in the upper layers of a site will have been deposited more recently than those found in the lower layers.Cross-dating of sites, comparing geologic strata at one site with another location and extrapolating the relative ages in that manner, is still an important dating strategy used today, primarily when sites are far too old for absolute dates to have much meaning.The scholar most associated with the rules of stratigraphy (or law of superposition) is probably the geologist Charles Lyell.The basis for stratigraphy seems quite intuitive today, but its applications were no less than earth-shattering to archaeological theory.For example, JJA Worsaae used this law to prove the Three Age System.

For more information on stratigraphy and how it is used in archaeology, see the Stratigraphy glossary entry.

Seriation, on the other hand, was a stroke of genius.

First used, and likely invented by archaeologist Sir William Flinders-Petrie in 1899, seriation (or sequence dating) is based on the idea that artifacts change over time.

Like tail fins on a Cadillac, artifact styles and characteristics change over time, coming into fashion, then fading in popularity. The standard graphical result of seriation is a series of "battleship curves," which are horizontal bars representing percentages plotted on a vertical axis.

Plotting several curves can allow the archaeologist to develop a relative chronology for an entire site or group of sites.

For detailed information about how seriation works, see Seriation: A Step by Step Description.