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Dating Techniques In Archaeology

By: Grahame Johnston - Updated: 11 Oct 2018 | comments*Discuss
 
Archaeology Dating Excavation

When museums and collectors purchase archaeological items for their collections they enter an expensive and potentially deceptive commercial fine arts arena. Healthy profits are to be made from illicitly plundered ancient sites or selling skillfully made forgeries. Archaeology dating techniques can assure buyers that their item is not a fake by providing scientific reassurance of the artefact's likely age.

Archaeological scientists have two primary ways of telling the age of artefacts and the sites from which they came: relative dating and absolute dating.

Relative Dating In Archaeology

Relative dating in archaeology presumes the age of an artefact in relation and by comparison, to other objects found in its vicinity. Limits to relative dating are that it cannot provide an accurate year or a specific date of use.

The style of the artefact and its archaeology location stratigraphically are required to arrive at a relative date. For example, if an artefact, say an oil lamp, is found co-located on the same floor of a governor's dwelling, and that floor can be dated in archaeology terms by reason of the patterns employed in the mosaic, then it is assumed that in relation to the floor that the lamp is of the same age.

Stratigraphy As A Dating Technique

The underlying principle of stratigraphic analysis in archaeology is that of superposition. This term means that older artefacts are usually found below younger items. When an archaeological site is excavated the sides of the unexcavated baulk reveals layering of subsequent settlements and activity. Stratigraphic excavation is the recording and study of these different strata as they are removed from the area.

Style Analysis As An Archaeology Dating Technique

The shape and style of an artefact changes through time although its function may remain the same. The changing styles of pottery, glass, stoneware, and metal objects provide archaeology analysts with known progressive sequences. Once an artefact is compared to its known development date then whenever that item reappears in the archaeological record, of that or any other site, it can quickly be dated.

The Weakness of Relative Dating

The potential flaws in relative dating in archaeology are obvious. Simply assuming that an artefact is older because it was found at a lower depth in the record is only subjective science. There are many instances of deep holes being dug for rubbish pits or to locate well water that protrude into the record of older strata injecting more modern material as they are filled in over time. Landslides and slips can completely change the topography of an entire archaeology site burying what was once on top by that which is much older, hence reversing the strata layers.

Absolute Dating As An Archaeology Dating Technique

A more precise and accurate archaeology dating system is known as absolute dating and can in most circumstances provide a calendar year to the object.

Since 1950 there has been a transformation in the dating techniques of archaeologists. Absolute dating is highly dependant on laboratory analysis. There are a number of techniques that have come to archaeology through the nuclear research efforts during WW2.

Radiocarbon Dating In Archaeology

Radiocarbon dating uses the biological assumption that all living things absorb carbon, both ordinary carbon, C12, and radioactive carbon, C14, into their living tissue. At the moment of death the C14 begins to decay at a rate that scientists already know from other experiments.

The missing amount can then determine how long it took to be lost and therefore date the object to a precise period. C14 Radiocarbon dating can only be used on organic matter.

Uranium - Lead Dating As A Dating Technique In Archaeology

Lithic items cannot be dated by C14 radiocarbon methods but the same principle can be used using radioactive uranium. Rocks, when formed by volcanic reaction or other cataclysmic event, contain a minute quantity of radioactive substance. From the day of the rock's creation this radioactivity begins to deplete. Like C14, by measuring the loss, a scientist can attribute an age according to known loss rates.

Luminescence Dating In Archaeology

Artefacts that are made from crystalline materials and uncovered in an excavation can be dated using luminescence analysis. Crystalline minerals when subjected to intense heat will burn with differing colours of flame. Mostly used to date pottery in archaeology the method is very effective but costly.

The greatest problem with dating an artefact from an archaeology site is that nearly every absolute dating process requires the destruction of at least a piece of the object in conducting the analysis. There are relatively few dating laboratories and having an artefact dated can be an expensive exercise especially if the artefact is not of great value itself.

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[Add a Comment]
I have been digging in my back yard. I live in Queen Valley Tx. About 16" down I found a log burnt to charcoal. Then I started finding a large number of pieces of clay pottery. Who can I get a hold of to have them dated? I read about a new way in the U.K. where they go by water that was soaked into the piece after being fired. They remove that water by firing again and weigh the piece before and after. Then calculate the age. Is that available here in the U.S. ? What is that type of dating called and do you know who does it?
Mike - 11-Oct-18 @ 3:08 AM
Found stone man playing what I think is a gourd instrument.trying to get him home with his family and friends.A.A.S. and local archaeologists. Are stumped.forgot to say it was found digging up 100 year old stone foundation in handerson Tx.Please help
P.D. - 26-Sep-18 @ 6:31 PM
My uncle's found some items in a cave while hiking in the mountains near Puerto Vallarta. Who would we take them to for checking?
Dy - 11-Jun-18 @ 4:00 PM
MAL - Your Question:
I have a small vase. 3 inches high round ay the bottom and tubular at the top with a small lip around the top. It’s bluish green glass slightly foggy. It was appraised in 1997 as priceless and said to be around 2,000 years old. But it wasn’t carbon dated. I would be interested in selling it. What would you suggest I do??

Our Response:
Take it to a well known auctioneer or antiques dealer for a valuation, they will then be able to give you an idea of which auction to sell at (there are usually specialist ones).
ArchaeologyExpert - 21-May-18 @ 11:23 AM
I have a small vase. 3 inches high round ay the bottom and tubular at the top with a small lip around the top. It’s bluish green glass slightly foggy. It was appraised in 1997 as priceless and said to be around 2,000 years old. But it wasn’t carbon dated.I would be interested in selling it. What would you suggest I do??
MAL - 18-May-18 @ 10:17 PM
I would like to know how to determine the age for a piece of gold (archaeology gold piece) where and how much is the cost I mean if I could get a resultsomething similar to the carbono 14 dating test. I really appreciate if you guys can advice me with that
Hans - 14-Mar-18 @ 9:17 PM
i have this meme on my table it is carved into rock. i dug it up in my back yard. i am not sure if it is real.
meme - 26-Feb-18 @ 12:47 AM
I am contacting you in regards to using your knowledge in a scholarly paper I am writing in which I plan to get a copy write on. I will give full credit to you and the website. I referenced the dating methods such as Stratigraphy dating, relative dating, and luminescence dating. Best regards, Brian Czyl
permission required - 8-Sep-17 @ 10:30 PM
Excuse me, could you please fix the punctuation errors, my students are not able to understand your blabber. Thanks, Cheers.
Mike - 6-Mar-17 @ 12:43 AM
I sent some pictures of the ring to auctionata, to be fair to them they did say it could be historical cultural heritage, but the only deal with very high value items. It's just a bit frustrating when you can't get an absolute conclusion, and many differing opinions.
coprop - 10-Jan-17 @ 6:20 PM
coprop - Your Question:
I have a gold ring which I believe is ancient but also important!There are many factors why I think it's genuine! The way it's constructed, the way the internal sides of the rings gold are melted with faults that look like bits of silverAnd the slightly differing colours, the hand carved gem and its,inscription!So many different opinions from so called experts! How do I find out conclusively!No provenance and its a fake! That's wrong!

Our Response:
Have you tried taking it to a museum that specialises in this kind of thing?
ArchaeologyExpert - 23-Nov-16 @ 11:17 AM
I have a gold ring which I believe is ancient but also important! There are many factors why I think it's genuine! The way it's constructed, the way the internal sides of the rings gold are melted with faults that look like bits of silver And the slightly differing colours, the hand carved gem and its,inscription! So many different opinions from so called experts! How do I find out conclusively! No provenance and its a fake! That's wrong!
coprop - 22-Nov-16 @ 5:31 PM
I have aquired a what I have been told is a wine or oil shipping vessel that was given to my grand father who lived in Poland before the 2nd world war from a German gentleman who had worked for him , the vase is a very dark blue in colour and has three lions faces on it holding rings in thier mouths and also there are dimples around the upper and lower part of the vase that I was told was encircled by knotted rope to hole it in place while in transport being suspended in that matter and it also has a flat bottom unlike the amphoras that have pointed bottoms ,would like to send a photo to someone in order to help identify it Jan Stepkowski #780 826 3829
andrew - 29-Jan-12 @ 4:22 AM
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