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Dating techniques are procedures used by scientists to determine the age of rocks, fossils, or artifacts. Relative dating methods tell only if one sample is older or younger than another; absolute dating methods provide an approximate date in years. The latter have generally been available only since Many absolute dating techniques take advantage of radioactive decaywhereby a radioactive form of an element decays into a non-radioactive product at a regular rate. Others, such as amino acid racimization and cation-ratio dating, are based on chemical changes in the organic or inorganic composition of a sample.
In recent years, a few of these methods have come under close scrutiny as scientists strive to develop the most accurate dating techniques possible. Relative dating methods determine whether one sample is older or younger than another. They do not provide an age in years. Before the advent of absolute dating methods, nearly all dating was relative.
The main relative dating method is stratigraphy.
Archaeological dating methods
Stratigraphy is the study of layers of rocks or the objects embedded within those layers. It is based on the assumption which nearly always holds true that deeper layers were deposited earlier, and thus are older, than more shallow layers.
The sequential layers of rock represent sequential intervals of time. Although these units may be sequential, they are not necessarily continuous due to erosional removal of some intervening. The smallest of these rock units that can be matched to a specific time interval is called a bed. Beds that are related are grouped together into members, and members are grouped into formations. Stratigraphy is the principle method of relative dating, and in the early years of dating studies was virtually the only method available to scientists.
Seriation is the ordering of objects according to their age. It is a relative dating method. In a landmark study, archaeologist James Ford used seriation to determine the chronological order of American Indian pottery styles in the Mississippi Valley. Artifact styles such as pottery types are seriated by analyzing their abundances through time. This is done by counting the of pieces of each style of the artifact in each stratigraphic layer and then graphing the data.
A layer with many pieces of a particular style will be represented by a wide band on the graph, and a layer with only a few pieces will be represented by a narrow band. The bands are arranged into battleship-shaped curves, with each style getting its own curve. The curves are then compared with one another, and from this the relative ages of the styles are determined. A limitation to this method is that it assumes all differences in artifact styles are the result of different periods of time, and are not due to the immigration of new cultures into the area of study.
The term faunal dating refers to the use of animal bones to determine the age of sedimentary layers or objects such as cultural artifacts embedded within those layers. Scientists can determine an approximate age for a layer by examining which species or genera of animals are buried in it.
How archaeologists determine the date of ancient sites and artifacts
The technique works best if the animals belonged to species, which evolved quickly, expanded rapidly archaeologist a large area, or suffered a mass extinction. In addition to providing rough absolute dates for specimens buried in the same stratigraphic unit as the bones, faunal analysis can also provide relative ages for objects buried above or below the fauna-encasing layers. Each year seed-bearing plants release large s of pollen grains. Pollen that ends up in lakebeds or peat bogs is the used likely to be preserved, but pollen may also become fossilized in arid conditions if the soil is acidic or cool.
Scientists can develop a pollen chronology, or calendar, by noting which species of pollen were deposited earlier in time, that is, residue in deeper sediment or rock layers, than others. The unit of the calendar is the pollen zone. A pollen zone is a period of time in which a particular species is much more abundant than any other species of the time. In most cases, this tells us about the climate of the period, because most plants only thrive in specific climatic conditions. Changes in pollen zones can also indicate changes in human activities such as massive deforestation or new types of farming.
Pastures for grazing livestock are distinguishable from fields of grain, so methods in the use of the land over time are recorded in the pollen history. The dates when areas of North America were first settled by immigrants can be determined to within a few years by looking for the introduction of ragweed pollen. Pollen zones are translated into absolute dates by the use of dating dating.
In addition, pollen dating provides relative dates beyond the limits of radiocarbon 40, yearsand can be used in some places where radiocarbon dates are unobtainable. Fluorine is found naturally in ground water. This water comes in contact with skeletal remains under ground. When this occurs, the fluorine in the water saturates the bone, changing the mineral composition.
Over time, more and more fluorine incorporates itself into the bone. By comparing the relative amounts of fluorine composition of skeletal remains, one can determine whether the remains were buried at the same time. A bone with a higher fluorine composition has been buried for a longer period of time. Absolute dating is the term used to describe any dating technique that tells how old a specimen is in years.
These are generally analytical methods, and are carried out in a laboratory. Absolute dates are also relative dates, in that they tell which specimens are older or younger than others. Absolute dates must agree with dates from other relative methods in order to be valid.
This dating technique was first conducted by Hare and Mitterer inand was popular in the s. It requires a much smaller sample than radiocarbon dating, and has a longer range, extending up to a few hundred thousand years. It has been used to date coprolites fossilized feces as well as fossil bones and shells.
These types of specimens contain proteins embedded in a network of minerals such as calcium. Amino acid racimization is based on the principle that amino acids except glycine, which is a very simple amino acid exist in two mirror image forms called stereoisomers.
Living organisms with the exception of some microbes synthesize and incorporate only the L-form into proteins. When these organisms die, the L-amino acids are slowly converted into D-amino acids in a process called racimization. The protons are quickly replaced, but will return to either side of the amino acid, not necessarily to the side from which they came.
This may form a D-amino acid instead of an L-amino acid. The rate at which the reaction occurs is different for each amino acid; in addition, it depends upon the moisture, temperature, and pH of the postmortem conditions. The higher the temperature, the faster the reaction occurs, so the cooler the burial environment, the greater the dating range.
The burial conditions are not always known, however, and can be difficult to estimate. For this reason, and because some of the amino acid racimization dates have disagreed with dates achieved by other methods, the technique is no longer widely used. Cation-ratio dating is used to date rock surfaces such as stone artifacts and cliff and ground drawings. It can be used to obtain dates that would be unobtainable by more conventional methods such as radio-carbon dating. Scientists use cation-ratio dating to determine how long rock surfaces have been exposed.
They do this by chemically analyzing the varnish that forms on these surfaces.
Dating in archaeology
The varnish contains cations, which are positively charged atoms or molecules. Different cations move throughout the environment at different rates, so the ratio of different cations to each other changes over time. By calibrating these ratios with dates obtained from rocks from a similar microenvironment, a minimum age for the varnish can be determined. This technique can only be applied to rocks from desert areas, where the varnish is most stable.
Although cation-ratio dating has been widely used, recent studies suggest it has many problems. Many of the dates obtained with this method are inaccurate due to improper chemical analyses. In addition, the varnish may not actually be stable over long periods of time. Finally, some scientists have recently suggested that the cation ratios may not even be directly related to the age of the sample.
Thermoluminescence dating is useful for determining the age of pottery. Electrons from quartz and other minerals in the pottery clay are bumped out of their normal positions ground state when the clay is exposed to radiation. This radiation may come from radioactive substances such as uranium, present in the clay or burial medium, or from cosmic radiation. The longer the exposure to the radiation, the more electrons that are bumped into an excited state, and the more light that is emitted upon heating.
The process of displacing electrons begins again after the object cools. Scientists can determine how many years have passed since a ceramic piece was fired by heating it in the laboratory and measuring how much light is given off. Thermoluminescence dating has the advantage of covering the time interval between radiocarbon and potassium-argon datingor 40, —years. In addition, it can be used to date materials that cannot be dated with these other two methods. Optically stimulated luminescence has only been used since Minerals found in sediments are sensitive to light.
Electrons found in the sediment grains leave the ground state when exposed to light, called recombination. To determine the age of a sediment, scientists expose grains to a known amount of light and compare these grains with the unknown sediment. This technique can be used to determine the age of unheated sediments less thanyears old. This absolute dating method is also known as dendrochronology.
It is based on the fact that trees produce one growth ring each year. The rings form a distinctive pattern, which is the same for all members in a given species and geographical area. The patterns from trees of different ages including ancient wood are overlapped, forming a master pattern that can be used to date timbers thousands of years old with a resolution of one year.
Timbers can be used to date buildings and archaeological sites. In addition, tree rings are used to date changes in the climate such as sudden cool or dry periods.
Dendrochronology has a range ofyears or more. As ly mentioned, radioactive decay refers to the process in which a radioactive form of an element is converted into a nonradioactive product at a regular rate. Radioactive decay dating is not a single method of absolute dating but instead a group of related methods for absolute dating of samples.