Archaeological Dating Methods Part 1: Relative and Radiocarbon Dating

The Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor, Egypt.
Shown here is the Temple of Hatshepsut in Egypt, because Egypt is awesome. Image by jarekgrafik from Pixabay.

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve just had another article published on StoneAgeMan! This latest post begins a discussion on archaeological dating methods, because learning about the past requires solid procedures for determining how old objects are.

I’d planned to cover all archaeological dating methods in one article, but that proved impossible: there are several ways to date archaeological finds, although most methods only work with specific types of samples. Thus, this first post concerns relative and radiocarbon dating methods.

Below is the most crucial information from the article.

Relative dating methods cannot determine exactly how old objects are, but only which objects are older and younger than others. In the StoneAgeMan article, I cover one relative dating method that relies on where a sample was found (stratigraphy), one that compares the physical characteristics of different artifacts (typology), and one that combines both of the aforementioned factors to track changes over time (seriation).

Of course, what archaeologists and the public most want is to attach specific years to archaeological finds. That’s where absolute dating methods – like radiocarbon dating – come in.

I spend roughly half of the StoneAgeMan article on radiocarbon dating, because it’s the most important absolute dating method in the archaeologist’s toolkit. It revolves around the radioactive decay of carbon-14 (14C), an unstable isotope of carbon that naturally breaks down into carbon-12.

14C is naturally produced when the sun’s energy interacts with nitrogen atoms in the earth’s atmosphere. Plants and animals acquire 14C while they’re alive, and their 14C content reaches an equilibrium with the environment.

When plants and animals die they can no longer replace the 14C that’s lost to radioactive decay. Thus, scientists can measure the amount of 14C left in an organic sample; and, by comparing this with the background 14C level in the atmosphere, estimate how long ago that organism died.

I go into much more detail in the StoneAgeMan post, so you should read it if you want to learn more! I’ll be writing about archaeological dating methods again in the future, starting with dendrochronology, or tree-ring dating.

14 Thoughts

  1. So am I the only one who is disappointed that the article is not about really about archaeological dating methods you know like how they used to date back in the day or as it was called courtship or maybe if carbon dating were a sort of dating site for paleontologist with corny pick-up lines like are you carbon 14 because I wanna date you and probably a whole lot of bonding and other madness that all you wanted was to spend half your life on that would be that…

    Ancient structures in Egypt have always fascinated me, like how did they do all that its a pity somehow civilisation lost a world of ancient secrets, I can’t imagine how the world would have been now had some of these societies continued on the path they had been back then when everyone else was wandering around living in caves they were building pyramids, maybe even got help from aliens or such.


    I tried counting the rings around a tree stump to figure out its age but I think what you see in the real world and what you see in text-book about how to find a tree’s age isn’t as clear cut as one would think.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi B! Haha, I like your archaeological pick-up lines. I don’t think I’ll try using them in the field though, because I don’t want a shovel in my face :p

      Ancient Egypt’s pretty much the coolest thing ever…I do wonder how some cultures were able to advance so much more quickly than others, although I imagine things like favorable climates and locations played a role. Then again, a classmate once pointed out to me that these “advanced” cultures always seem to crumble in the end, so maybe it’s the people living in caves who truly know what’s up?

      I just finished drafting an article on tree-ring dating (no, don’t go and date a tree), and you’re right, it’s not clear cut. Some trees have much more distinct rings than others, and trees in wet climates aren’t as good for dating as in drier areas, because all the rings look the same when each year has adequate precipitation. I think that the people who study tree rings for real also use magnifying glasses and other tools to help them see more easily – I’m not sure on that point though.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hey Josh,
    First thing that popped into my mind when I saw this post was the Egyptian pyramids and how completely fascinating they are, yeah I may be slightly obsessed with the legend of king Tut and Nefertiti . I would also like to get a grasp on how they built those pyramids cause wow.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My word, visiting Egypt would be the most amazing thing ever. I’m blown away by everything the ancient Egyptians produced, and would love to spend a whole year in Egypt diving super deep into the archaeology there.

      Fun fact, I’ve been told I look like the digital reconstructions they’ve made of King Tut ;)

      Liked by 1 person

          1. Yes and I’ve been crossing my fingers that they are able to find Nefertiti’s remains so that a conclusive Dna test can be done & we can finally have an answer to it.

            Honestly, I really want it to be that Nefertiti was King Tuts mother… that would be juicy info.

            Liked by 1 person

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