Absolute and relative dating in archaeology
Before more precise absolute dating tools were possible, researchers used a variety of comparative approaches called relative dating.
These methods — some of which are still used today — provide only an approximate spot within a previously established sequence: Think of it as ordering rather than dating.
Thermoluminescence: Silicate rocks, like quartz, are particularly good at trapping electrons.
Researchers who work with prehistoric tools made from flint — a hardened form of quartz — often use thermoluminescence (TL) to tell them not the age of the rock, but of the tool.
It would be like having a watch that told you day and night.” Single crystal fusion: Also called single crystal argon or argon-argon (Ar-Ar) dating, this method is a refinement of an older approach known as potassium-argon (K-Ar) dating, which is still sometimes used.
Both methods date rock instead of organic material. But unlike radiocarbon dating, the older the sample, the more accurate the dating — researchers typically use these methods on finds at least 500,000 years old.
Researchers can measure the amount of these trapped electrons to establish an age.
But to use any trapped charge method, experts first need to calculate the rate at which the electrons were trapped.
Over time, certain kinds of rocks and organic material, such as coral and teeth, are very good at trapping electrons from sunlight and cosmic rays pummeling Earth.
When it comes to determining the age of stuff scientists dig out of the ground, whether fossil or artifact, “there are good dates and bad dates and ugly dates,” says paleoanthropologist John Shea of Stony Brook University.
The good dates are confirmed using at least two different methods, ideally involving multiple independent labs for each method to cross-check results.
Paleomagnetism: Earth’s magnetic polarity flip-flops about every 100,000 to 600,000 years.
The polarity is recorded by the orientation of magnetic crystals in specific kinds of rock, and researchers have established a timeline of normal and reversed periods of polarity.