Absolute dating in archaeology explained

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Archaeologists have a variety of approaches for dating archaeological sites or the items discovered there. Relative dating, as well as absolute dating, are the two most common types of archaeological dating techniques.


Relative dating is a less advanced technique compared to absolute dating. In relative dating, archaeologists consider artifacts in relation to other artifacts found at the site. This approach helps with putting an artifact's age into perspective, but it cannot provide you with the exact year of an object's creation. 


For example, if an archaeologist finds a pottery shard, they can look at the type of clay and tempering used as well as cross-referencing that information with the style of pottery being produced in different time periods.


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Absolute dating is a more precise method for dating archaeological sites or artifacts. With absolute dating, archaeologists can assign a specific date instead of a general time period. To do this, they use natural phenomena like tree rings, ice cores, and annual lake deposits. 


The three main kinds of absolute dating techniques are radiocarbon dating, dendrochronology, and thermoluminescence.

Radiocarbon dating

Radiocarbon dating is the most common form of absolute dating. This method uses the naturally occurring radioactive isotope Carbon-14 to estimate the age of organic materials like wood, charcoal, or bone up to 50,000 years old.


This method of dating relies on the fact that all living things exchange carbon with their environment. Once an organism dies, it ceases to take in new carbon-14, and the amount of carbon-14 present in its remains decreases at a predictable rate over time. 


By measuring the amount of carbon-14 remaining in a sample, archaeologists can determine when the sample died. The half-life of Carbon-14 is 5730 years which means that every 5730 years, half of the original amount of Carbon-14 will have decayed into nitrogen.


The results of radiocarbon dating are expressed in years, with an acceptable margin of error. For example, a test could state that an object was dating from "1030 ± 40 BP". This means that it was alive 1030 years ago 'Before Present', with a potential range of error of 40 years before or after that date.


Since Carbon 14 is almost all gone after 50,000 years, radiocarbon dating cannot be used for anything beyond this age.

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Dendrochronology is a form of absolute dating that uses tree rings to date wood and, as such, can be used on wood and other organic materials. Trees produce a new growth ring each year, and by looking at the pattern of rings produced by different trees in the same geographical region. 


Different environmental factors created unique patterns for tree ring growth. These factors include the amount of rainfall, temperature changes, and the amount of sunlight.


By studying the patterns produced by various trees in a particular area, archaeologists can develop a master chronology for that area. This master chronology can be used to date other tree-ring samples from the same area with a high degree of accuracy.


Dendrochronology is most frequently used with softwood species that are affected by changes in growth conditions, whereas hardwoods show considerably less variation in ring width.


Archaeologists typically rely on dendrochronology to date any artifacts that contain wooden elements. This can include wooden buildings, weapons, tools, and even boats.


Dendrochronology has been used extensively in Europe and North America, but it is less useful in other parts of the world because there are fewer trees with long enough records to create a master chronology.


Thermoluminescence is an absolute dating technique that can be used on certain minerals. This method works by taking advantage of the fact that some minerals emit light when heated. By measuring the amount of light emitted, archaeologists can determine how long ago the mineral was last heated. 


Thermoluminescence relies upon the fact that some minerals, such as quartz and feldspar, trap radioactive elements from the atmosphere. Over time, the amount of radiation increases at a steady rate.


However, when items that contain these minerals are heated, the radiation is released in the form of heat and light. After the heating process is completed, the item has lost all of its radiation and it slowly starts collecting it again.


As a result, archaeologists can take a part of an artifact that contains traces of these minerals, such as clay, and heat it in a laboratory test to measure how much radiation has been trapped. Once measured, it allows them to determine how long it has been since it was first put under heat. This method has been used to date pottery, bricks, and other fired objects. 


The main limitation of thermoluminescence is that it can only date objects that have been heated at some point in their history. Also, thermoluminescence is an incredibly complex process. To achieve a solid result a single pottery sample, it requires up to 75 sub-samples to be used. As a result, the process also causes the partial destruction of the artifact in order to produce these samples.


Absolute dating techniques are a valuable tool for archaeologists. By using these techniques, they can assign a specific date to an artifact instead of a general time period. Absolute dating techniques include radiocarbon dating, dendrochronology, and thermoluminescence. Each of these methods has its own limitations, but by using multiple methods, archaeologists


Absolute dating techniques have revolutionized archaeology by allowing researchers to precisely date objects and events. These methods are not without their drawbacks, but they provide a valuable tool for ordering the past.