Absolute dating techniques in archaeology

On the one level, events and individuals are placed in an absolute chronology: the exact years and sometimes even months and days of the events and biographies are known.

On the other level, the exact years may not be known, but it is known that one feature is earlier or later in relation to another; this is typically the case on an excavation, where the different archaeological strata allow objects found to be placed in a relative historical framework.

Relative dating methods do not tell archaeologists exactly how old things are, but only how old things are relative to each other.

The Greeks consider the first Olympic Games as the beginning or 776 BC.

Sometimes only one method is possible, reducing the confidence researchers have in the results. “They’re based on ‘it’s that old because I say so,’ a popular approach by some of my older colleagues,” says Shea, laughing, “though I find I like it myself as I get more gray hair.” Kidding aside, dating a find is crucial for understanding its significance and relation to other fossils or artifacts.

Methods fall into one of two categories: relative or absolute.

Paleontologists still commonly use biostratigraphy to date fossils, often in combination with paleomagnetism and tephrochronology.

A submethod within biostratigraphy is faunal association: Sometimes researchers can determine a rough age for a fossil based on established ages of other fauna from the same layer — especially microfauna, which evolve faster, creating shorter spans in the fossil record for each species.