Relative dating techniques in archaeology

For a long period in the 20th century Egyptian and Near Eastern chronology seemed to be the earliest of absolute chronologies, and imports from these areas were used to reconstruct the chronology of European prehistory.

With the introduction of objective quantifiable methods such as dendrochronology and Carbon-14 dating, over the past half century, European and North American archaeology have developed independent and more reliable chronologies, that often make it possible to date more precisely than in Egypt. For Egypt absolute year dates can only be established back to the beginning of the Late Period, from links to Greek chronology, and then from Assyrian king-lists and other Near Eastern sources, back to the Ramesside Period (still debated). The Egyptians dated by the year of reign of the king on the throne (for example 'year 3 of king X').

The stratigraphic levels would then be spatially horizontal, conforming to the changing coastline.

Horizontal stratigraphy may also occur when a later culture settles next to an earlier abandoned site, thereby appearing to be contemporary to the older site.

The dating of remains is essential in archaeology, in order to place finds in correct relation to one another, and to understand what was present in the experience of any human being at a given time and place.

Level II (middle): pictures of sherds (broken pieces) of decorated pottery; a mortar and pestle for grinding grain; scattered beads and carved figures; post holes (shown as a regularly patterned darkened areas of soil) for a dwelling; scattered bones of wild game. Ancient Washington: American Indian Cultures of the Potomac Valley.

The time line generated by your students will introduce them to the important concept of stratigraphy, as well as to the goal of archaeology: to reconstruct past lifeways and place them in a chronological framework in order to better understand the present. This technique dates a site based on the relative frequency of types of artifacts whose dates of use or manufacture are known. The kinds of questions they should ask are: Is it made of wood, paper, cloth, metal, pottery? Is it for personal care, decoration, or amusement, or does it have a utilitarian purpose? Were the materials used in its manufacture from the local area or from far away? The categories for classification will be suggested by the objects in the assemblage.

The basic assumption underlying seriation is that the popularity of culturally produced items [such as clay pipes or obelisk gravestone markers in America] varies through time, with a frequency pattern that has been called the "battleship curve." An item is introduced, it grows in popularity, then its use begins to wane as it is replaced by another form. Are there any patterns apparent in the objects the students have brought to class?

Despite problems of interpretation, stratigraphy is a powerful archaeological tool in unlocking the mysteries of past lifeways.

Exercises: Level I (earliest): pictures of fire blackened rocks in a rough circle suggesting a hearth; scattered stone tools; and scattered animal bones and fruit pits.

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