Sometimes only one method is possible, reducing the confidence researchers have in the results. “They’re based on ‘it’s that old because I say so,’ a popular approach by some of my older colleagues,” says Shea, laughing, “though I find I like it myself as I get more gray hair.” Kidding aside, dating a find is crucial for understanding its significance and relation to other fossils or artifacts.
Methods fall into one of two categories: relative or absolute.
For example, New Zealand’s massive Taupo volcano erupted in A. Relative chronology: Researchers have often constructed timelines of a culture or civilization based on the stylistic evolution of its decorative or dramatic arts — that’s why the method is also sometimes called stylistic seriation.
Generally speaking, the more complex a poem or piece of pottery is, the more advanced it is and the later it falls in the chronology.
This includes factoring in many variables, such as the amount of radiation the object was exposed to each year.
Tephrochronology: Within hours or days of a volcanic eruption, tephra — fragments of rock and other material hurled into the atmosphere by the event — is deposited in a single layer with a unique geochemical fingerprint.
Biostratigraphy: One of the first and most basic scientific dating methods is also one of the easiest to understand.
Layers of rock build one atop another — find a fossil or artifact in one layer, and you can reasonably assume it’s older than anything above it.
Egyptologists, for example, created a relative chronology of pre-pharaonic Egypt based on increasing complexity in ceramics found at burial sites.
Whenever possible, researchers use one or more absolute dating methods, which provide an age for the actual fossil or artifact.