So You Want To Be An Archaeologist? -Dating Methods
Relative vs absolute dating with a focus on radiocarbon dating
Welcome back to the next part of this archaeological key skills series. Last time we looked at stratigraphy and context, two of the most fundamental concepts for understanding how archaeologists make sense of excavations. This time we’re going to explore another key component of the field: how to tell how old something is, or different dating methods.
The ability to accurately date artefacts and site features is obviously of the greatest importance to archaeology, without it we don’t have a discipline, nothing makes sense. Most people have heard of radiocarbon dating, although they may not know what it means. But before radiocarbon dating there were other ways to date things, and radiocarbon dating is not itself foolproof or even helpful under different conditions. The most fundamental split to grasp is between the two types of dating system - relative and absolute - and there are numerous methods within these categories to achieve this. You might say that dating is not an exact science, but it relies on exact science. The list of things you can use to date is huge: from animal teeth to tree rings, the magnetic properties of sand to isotope ratios of carbon, from layers of fossilised sea creatures to the growth of lichen on old trees. Accurate dating is not only important for accurate science, but it has many applications in forensics, law enforcement, tackling smuggling and forgeries and questions of cultural importance (for example the age of the Shroud of Turin). One should always be sceptical of dates until you know how they were established, and I’ll highlight some key things to watch out for as we go along.
Relative vs Absolute Dating
If I gave you a garage full of old cars and asked you to put them order of age, I think you would roughly be able to manage it.
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