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Principles of Prehistoric Archaeology. Chronology: Relative and Absolute Dating methods

The emergence of man through the process of biological and cultural evolution is a story of long span of time. For the archaeologist and the prehistorian who deals with that long history of man, time is the most important consideration.

The sequence of development of culture or the relationship between events that represent culture can be established only when events can be placed in proper time. Chronology, the study of events in time frame, is hence the central theme of archaeologist, like the geologist who deals with the story of earth history.

In fact, chronology is one of the most fundamental issues in and perhaps a characteristic of archaeology. Archaeologists use several methods to assign ages to events of the past. They are engaged in defining the stages of hominid evolution and their artifactual record, and the assignment of a chronology to these stages.

Definition of Chronology

Chronology is the science of measuring time and ordering of the things in time. According to the Dictionary of Anthropology, the word chronology means the science of computing dates or treaties showing arrangement of events with dates.

In other words, Chronology is the arrangement of events, or the materials which represent them, in the order of their occurrence in time. Any study of the origins of human must be set in a chronological context.

  • Prehistory denotes a period for which we do not have any written records. It deals with a long span of time.
  • Therefore, whenever any kind of prehistoric remain is recovered, a very common question comes into mind is that, How old is it? Whether it belongs to palaeolithic period of some million years old or it belongs to a comparatively recent chalcolithic period of only some thousand years old?
  • To get the answer we have to rely on various dating methods that are available to the prehistorians.
  • Any study of the origins of human must be set in a chronological context. Prehistoric archaeologists use several methods to assign ages to events of the past. Knowledge on various dating methods, therefore, is very essential aspects of prehistoric archaeological studies.

Types of Dating

  • There are mainly two types of dating; i) relative and ii) absolute or chronometric dating.
  • Relative dating fixes a time frame in relation to other strata or material and not in absolute dates in numbers.
  • It can only define the antiquity in terms of older or younger than something else and makes it possible to arrange a series of things in proper chronological order.
  • But it is difficult to know the total time span involved in the intervals between the things.
  • On the other hand the absolute dating technique exhibit chronology in terms of years.
  • It offers precise and accurate dating. There may be marginal errors which are almost negligible.
  • Some of the common and widely applied absolute dating methods are Carbon-14, Potassium-Argon or K-A40, Thermoluminesence or TL. Dendrochronology etc.
  • In the early stage of prehistoric studies there was only relative chronology. But in the last fifty years, with the emergence of C14 method there has been total change in dating scenario.
  • Relative dating, however, is still applied in those areas where the deposits containing organic materials cannot be dated by any absolute dating techniques.
  • Several disciplines like geology, physics, chemistry, botany, palaeontology contributed towards their development.
  • These methods can be discussed under two categories, absolute and relative dating methods. A list of some of the absolute and relative methods are given below -

1. Relative Dating:

  1. Stratigraphy
  2. Typology
  3. Cross dating
  4. Sequence dating
  5. Fluorine, uranium and nitrogen analysis
  6. Palaeontology
  7. Palynology
  8. Patination.

2. Absolute Dating

  1. Carbon Dating
  2. Potassium- argon Dating
  3. Thermoluminescence
  4. Dendrochronology
  5. Electron Spin Resonance
  6. Fission Track Dating
  7. Palaemagnetic dating
  8. Obsidian hydration
  9. Varve analysis
  10. Amino Acid Racemaization.

Distinction between Relative and Absolute Dating:

  • In the early stage of prehistoric studies, dating of any event or site was obtained tentatively. A particular event or specimen is dated in relation to other event or some reference point.
  • By relative methods one can know whether a particular culture is younger or older than another one, and thereby arrange a series of things in a sequential time frame.
  • These methods were basically depending upon stratigraphic position of the site or kind of remains associated with the site. However, these methods have never been able to provide a date in terms of years, nor it can calculate the total time span involved in each cultural period.
  • The relative chronology, in the words of Wheeler (1956), is "...the arrangement of the products of non-historic societies into a time relationship which may not have any dates but which has a sequence..."
  • Unlike relative dating, absolute or chronometric dating is primarily sought to facilitate time sequence in terms of years. It provides the actual time spanned by a site sequence with close approximation.
  • These methods can provide chronological sequence of even geographically isolated events or culture. Thus, the rate of change differential development in separate areas, and the identification of the geographic sources of widespread cultural influences can be established with the help of different absolute dating.
  • Absolute dating or chronometric dating usually demands high technology, laboratory and hence costly. It also demands the help of sciences like geophysics, geochemistry, astronomy, nuclear physics etc.

Description of different dating methods :

Till the early part of 19th century quite a good number of relative dating methods have been used in archaeological studies. A short description of each of these methods is given below:

Stratigraphy -

  • Stratigraphy is the analysis of a series of layers that exist in the horizontal dimension, studied in the vertical time dimension.
  • The method is based on the basic geological principle that among the layers, the earlier deposit lies under later deposit.
  • Therefore, whenever a stratigraphic sequence is observed during the excavation of a site, relative ages of the cultural levels can be worked out. The stratigraphic associations of artefact types within and between archaeological sites are regarded as one of the very important method of relative dating.

Typology -

  • An archaeological site mainly consists of artefacts and tools. The tools found in the site are classified on the basis of their form or shape and accordingly different categories or types are made.
  • These are then arranged from simple to elaborate or from poorly preserved to well preserved or from crude to refine etc. Then a relative antiquity is derived based on the presumption that simple, poorly preserved and crude tools are earlier than the elaborate, well preserved and refined ones.
  • The typological method although was used for obtaining relative dating earlier, it has come in for much criticism now-a-days.
  • According to Wheeler 'the values of typological classification are liable to be local rather than universal' but when the method is used in corroboration with stratigraphic method, it may become very helpful'.

Sequence Dating -

  • In 1881 a relative dating method was developed by the great Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie in Egypt.
  • The method is based on the fact that artefacts change in predictable ways through time. Among all other artefacts it is found that pottery changes with time frequently and a sequence of pottery design can thus be worked out.
  • By detecting this trend of change, an archaeologist can trace associated cultural changes and make short term time distinction.
  • While the excavation of grave was carried out in Egypt, Petrie found that the graves were associated with varied pottery. He analyse the features of pottery such as handles of pot and worked out a sequence showing their change, progressing from functional entities to mere decorations.
  • The changes on pots were than correlated with other artefacts from graves and he finally ended with a series of numbered pottery stages that he labelled 'sequence dates'.
  • This method was later on applied by the great anthropologist, Kroeber in determining the relative age of some sites in south western United States, Mexico and Peru.

Cross Dating -

  • Cross dating involves the comparison of artefacts found in different stratigraphic levels. The method is based on the fact that the similar artefacts are approximately contemporary.
  • The greater the similarity, the closer the ages. Certain artefacts like coins, pottery, arrowheads etc., which have limited occurrence in a given culture provide best sample for cross dating.
  • When such type of objects are found in two different sites, according to cross dating sites are considered roughly the same age. Different pottery types which changes very frequently with time and hence occur for a very shorter period of time are better 'index fossil' or 'horizon marker' than others.

Fluorine, Uranium, and Nitrogen analysis:

  • Prehistoric sites often consist of many bone remains. The basic principle of the method is that the longer a bone will be placed in soil, the more fluorine will be caught in and hence can suggest a relative date.
  • All bones whether of animal or of human lying in the same level exhibit similar fluorine percentage in them. Therefore, if the quantity of fluorine remains same in both kinds of bone, it is sure that they belong to the same age.
  • The bones acquired from a lower level show more fluorine in them whereas the bone remains coming from the upper level contains less fluorine. Relative ages of different bones at the same site thus can be established by measuring their fluorine contents.
  • The method cannot provide an absolute age because the amount of fluorine differs from soil to soil, which gives a differential rate of absorption.
  • Like fluorine, uranium or nitrogen content of the bones also can be measured. Since fluorine and uranium levels in the bone increase with time, while nitrogen decreases, such measurements helps to place in sequence the cultural phases with which the different bones may be associated.
  • In fact the analysis of fluorine, uranium or nitrogen is regarded as one of the very important technique for relative dating.

Palaeontology -

  • Palaeontology, the study of fossilised remains of bones in archaeological sites also provide relative dates. The method is based on the fact that some animals migrate or become extinct with the change of climate.
  • That is, climate has a direct relationship with the presence or absence of certain animals. For example, if evidence for Elephas antiques (a forest elephant) is found, one can assume a temperate climate, while the presence of E. primigenous (a steppe elephant) indicates a steppes or tundra environment of almost glacial conditions.
  • Likewise, it is found that in North America the arrival of man caused the extinction of mammals such as the mammoth, horse, camel and several species of bison.
  • These can be dated approximately about 6000 B.C However, a margin of 1000 years error might be there as all of them have not become extinct at once and some have lived in isolated areas in which case the dating of fauna associated with other evidence is inexact and misleading.
  • Smaller species of animals like rodents, birds, some molluscs and snails are found very sensitive to changes in climate than the larger mammals. In Northern Ireland it has been possible to show changes in coastal environment since the time of human occupation by studying changes in tidal - zone molluscs found in archaeological sites.

Palynology -

  • Lennart Von Post, a Swedish Scientist, was the first to develop this palaeobotanical method in 1916.
  • By this method a microscopic analysis of pollens extracted from trees are used to identify various trees and a pollen diagram is prepared.
  • The pollen diagram in which relative frequencies of various species are plotted helps in tracing out the changing vegetation of an area.
  • Acid peat or bog deposit is ideal sources of animal pollen, but dry sites, and clays contain enough pollen to provide a sequence. Pollens in soil underlying or overlying archaeological sites may be correlated with the already known regional pollen sequence and the age of the site thus can be dated.
  • A very good example of application of pollen method is the archaeological site at Choukoutien in China.

Patination -

  • There is no precise definition for the term patination though it generally means chemical alteration of rock surfaces exposed to atmospheric conditions.
  • The amount of patina on the stone is an index of its age valuable for relative placement of the stone artefact in the technological development.
  • The chemical alterations of the stone are usually brought about by the action of iron oxides through time.
  • The observation of the amount of patina on a stone may be used at sites where there is a long sequence and demonstrates that those tools which lie in the bottom level may have more patina than those in the upper levels.
  • The different types of tools from the river gravels, terraces of rivers or lakes can be differentiated in the relative amounts of patina on the basis of which of the relative ages can be assigned on the artefacts.
  • A.J.H. Goodwin who worked extensively on the patination in 1960 lists many variables involved in patina formation as well as different type of patination. That can be used fruitfully for the tools from stratified deposits.

Absolute Dating:

Carbon Dating -

  • Radiocarbon dating is a chemical analysis used to determine the age of organic materials based on their content of the radioisotope of carbon 14.
  • The method was developed by Willard F. Libby and a team of scientists at the University of Chicago. In 1960 Libby received the Nobel Prize for his method to use Carbon-14 for age determinations in archaeology, geology, geophysics, and other branches of science.
  • It subsequently evolved into the most powerful method of dating and Holocene artefacts and geologic events up to about 50,000 years.
  • By radiocarbon method one can date different types of organic or inorganic materials as long as they consist of carbon. The method is actually devised to measure the amount of low level radioactivity of carbon remaining in ancient and dead material of organic origin.
  • Radiocarbon (14C) dating is the most widely accepted technique for studying the chronological relationships of archaeological complexes. Using the radiocarbon method as a source of objective information, we are able to build Stone Age chronologies as well as establish the primary chrono-cultural boundaries.

Pottassium- Argon (K-A40) Dating -

  • This method is also a radioactive method. The earth's crust contains potassium of which isotope K40 decays to A40 at a known rate.
  • The ratio of potassium to Argon may be measured to ascertain date of minerals and rocks in a deposit. This method is able to cover a wide range of time even far greater than C-14 method because, the half life of the radioactive potassium is 1330 million years.
  • The method has proved quite useful in dating some hominid fossils as employed in the site of Olduvai Gorge in east Africa where the remains were as old as 1.75 million years.
  • The advantage of the method is that it works well in case of the sites which are 500,000 years old. But the disadvantage of the method is that it can be applied to only to those rocks and minerals which are rich in potassium. Therefore the method is restricted to the areas where volcanic rocks rich in potassium are available.

Thermoluminescence(TL) -

  • The use of Thermoluminescence (TL) for dating purposes was developed in 1960s mainly at the Oxford Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art by M. Aitken and co- workers.
  • Initially designed to date archaeological ceramics, it was subsequently extended to other mineral materials, such as burnt flint.
  • This is based on the fact that objects such as pottery that have been heated in the past can be dated by the measurement of their Thermoluminescence (TL) glow.
  • Thermoluminiscence (TL) is the emitted light in the pottery which can be measured. If the ground up pottery is reheated, it emits light. The phenomenon results from radio-active influence of the metallic elements like uranium and potassium present in the clay and surrounding soils.
  • By the use of Thermoluminescence (TL) dating methods and the results obtained could make it possible to provide a new chronological framework for archaeological and anthropological knowledge.
  • For example, the new chronology based on Thermoluminescence (TL) dating enabled in revising some prior assumptions about the evolution of lithic industries and the nature of hominids present in the Near East at various stages of the Middle Palaeolithic.

Dendrochronology -

  • The age of wooden objects can be determined by means of Dendrochronology or tree ring analysis. It determines the calendar years of tree-ring formation and the felling dates of trees, which helps to determine the age of wooden objects with a great precision.
  • Dendrochronology has therefore become well established in the field of archaeology, art history and cultural heritage.
  • The method depends on the fact that trees growing in temperate zones have clearly defined annual rings of growth. As these tree rings represent annual growth, merely by counting rings one can count the age of the tree and hence its association.
  • This dating method with latest methodological advances helps us in defining the calendar year in which the tree-rings were formed and in interpreting such dating in terms of the age of a wooden object.

Electron Spin Resonance (ESR) -

  • In the last 20 years, the Electron Spin Resonance (ESR) dating method has allowed the establishment of a chronological time frame over most of the history of human evolution.
  • Despite many difficulties found for ESR dating of bones and carbonates, tooth enamel dated by Electron Spin Resonance (ESR) has been proven as a reliable method in its application to fossil teeth and quartz.
  • Both of the latter materials have allowed dating of Early and Middle Pleistocene sites which are not datable using other methods.
  • In particular, recent discoveries of human remains in Western Europe have been proposed to be sites of the earliest arrival of humans there, and have been dated to the Early Pleistocene by Electron Spin Resonance (ESR) using quartz and tooth enamel.
  • Electron Spin Resonance (ESR) method can be applied to different types of samples in various environments; its contribution to the elaboration of a chronostratigraphic frame is of a great importance for the understanding of the Homo erectus dispersals out of Africa and especially for the first settlements in Europe.
  • Electron Spin Resonance (ESR) dates ranging between 1.7 and 2.3 Ma have been proposed for the South African sites Sterkfontein and Swartzkrans, indicating that the whole Quaternary period can be dated.

Palaeomagnetic Dating -

  • It is an important means of crosschecking the dates based on the constantly shifting nature of the earth magnetic field, both in direction and intensity.
  • The measurement of the earth's magnetic field in several places of the world for centuries has shown that it varies with time.
  • A number of studies have shown that a record of past magnetic field in the form of angles of declination and dip can be trapped in baked clay.
  • When clay is heated to a certain degree, the magnetic elements of baked clay realign themselves along lines dictated by the intensity and character of the magnetic field of the earth at that time.
  • On cooling the magnetic elements are frozen and can be recorded as long as the clay is preserved. This is called remnant magnetism.
  • When records of past angles of declination and dip have been kept it is possible to compare the values of historic records and arrive at the date of archaeological specimens of fired clay.
  • Fluxgate, Spinner magnetometer, Super-conduction magnetometer are the instruments used for measuring magnetic remenence.
  • The method was used in Great Britain by Aitken in detail. It has also been used in Japan and Arizona. In India the method is applied in dating Karewa sediments in Kashmir.
  • The reliability of the application of the method depends on certain conditions such as
    1. The availability of good records of change of magnetic paths near the prehistoric sites,
    2. Occurrence of series of already dated baked clay in the area against which objects of unknown dates can be dated,
    3. Availability of archaeological samples which are found in their place of first occurrence. Fire places and kiln thus provide best samples for dating. Varve analysis - Varve analysis, one of the oldest dating methods which demonstrate seasonal variation and also reflect the climatic conditions of ancient time. The word varve in Swedish means annual layers of sediments deposited at the bottom of the lakes by the runoff from melting glacial ice. The method is based on the relative thickness of the varves and their comparison to the new sections as in tree ring analysis. Formation of varves depends on climatic variation. In summer when ice melts coarse sediments deposits at the bottom and in winter when the lake is frozen, the finer sediments deposit at the top. It is possible to measure the relative thickness of the varves and obtain a series to which one can compare and correlate new sections as they are discovered.

The application of varve dating is restricted by several factors. First, it is because varve accumulation occurs only to glacial areas of the world. Second, many of the Pleistocene glacial areas has receded nowadays and affecting the supply of sediments. Therefore outside Scandinavia it is difficult to find continuous sequence of varves reaching the present. The longest sequence known goes back only 17,000 years. Third, the varves may form frequently rather than annually depending on the pattern of the melting. However, instead of the limitations, varve analysis can be used indirectly for archaeological dating. It has been used in Baltic area, North America, South America and Africa. In North America, Ernst Antevs has made several attempts to relate Pleistocene geological formations in the American Southwest to events that produced varves in the northern parts of North America.

Fission Track Technique - This technique dates material ranging from 20 years to 1,000,000,000 years before the present. Fission track dating is based upon the fact that over geological time spontaneous fission of uranium-238 impurities produces minute sub- microscopic damage trails in the most insulating solids, both long period of time. As the damage sites are permanent, a simple count of their number allows an age to be measured. The density of track depends on the uranium content as well as the age of the sample (i.e. the 'fossil' tracks counted) viz., exposes the sample to a known number of low energy (thermal)neutrons which induce fission of a small fraction of the uranium atoms in the sample. The sample is immersed in the proper chemical reagent, which allows rapid attack of the narrow regions of damage and slower dissolution of the adjacent unchanged material. Such treatment are used to create etch pits of optical size, each one making a single fission site. The method requires sufficient uranium to produce a track density, which can be counted within reasonable time.

Amino Acid Racemisation Technique

Amino Acid Racemisation, a method of absolute dating applied to human fossils is developed very recently. This is based on the fact that all living organisms have L-amino acid in their protein and after death, and over a long period of time all the L-amino acids except glycine undergo change called racemisation and became non protein D-amino acid. The proportion of these D-amino acids increases with time. Thus the age of the skeletal materials that are found in archaeological sites can be estimated by determining the amount of change, racemisation that has occurred. Amino Acid Racemisation (AAR) is a useful comparative dating method with great potential, but it introduces problems of calibration and the requirement of an intimate knowledge of the palaeoenvironmental conditions of the bone deposition site.


Capabilities and limitations of major Chronometric Dating Method


Most suitable materials

Effective dating range

Major limitations

Radiocarbon, C14

Organic materials, inorganic carbonates

20000 to 400000yrs depending on material

Poor sampling, contamination by younger materials



Potassium- Argon,

(K-A 40)

Volcanic rock or materials

Unlimited, coarse calibration

Availability of un weathered volcanic rock, sample preparation, contamination



Intact kiln or hearth

             2000 yrs

Calibration, limited applicability



    10000 yrs or more

Range          of error, few facilities

Obsidian hydration

Obsidian artefacts

35000 yrs

Requires calibrated regional framework framework


Amino acid racemization



Bone, marine shells


100000 yrs


Experimental stage only,       few facilities




Sediments, Ice, laminae


15000 yrs or more


Limited application


Tree rings

7500 yrs

Region specific


The hominid fossil record is extremely fragmentary, and chronology is essential in unravelling the complex record of human development. Carbon dating discovered in 1955, proved very helpful for establishing absolute dating in various archaeological sites. Potassium-Argon (K40) method extends the range of absolute dating beyond the limit of radio-carbon. Besides these two a number of other absolute method like thermo luminescence, dendrochronology, Electron Spin Resonance etc. also proved very helpful for dating various events of the past.

In applying the dating methods to a particular site, it is important to consider the purposes and limitations of each dating method - relative or absolute. With the help of stratigraphic position of the site or with the help of some associated finds dates of the site can be derived relatively, whereas with the help of several absolute dating around the world, archaeologists are now able to construct a single, multiregional time frame for all hominid evolution. Depending upon the type of problem, accuracy required, materials available for dating, problem of contamination will decide what type of technique one should use for dating. All dating techniques have their merits and demerits and this has to be kept in mind by the archaeologist. It is essential to apply several dating methods for cross-checking the dates and to build a concrete chronology.

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