Everything Worth Knowing About Scientific Dating Methods This dating scene is dead. The good dates are confirmed using at least two different methods, ideally involving multiple independent labs for each method to cross-check results. Sometimes only one method is possible, reducing the confidence researchers have in the results.
Methods fall into one of two categories: These methods — some of which are still used today — provide only an approximate spot within a previously established sequence: Think of it as ordering rather than dating. One of the first and most basic scientific dating methods is also one of the easiest to understand.
Paleontologists still commonly use biostratigraphy to date fossils, often in combination with paleomagnetism and tephrochronology. A submethod within biostratigraphy is faunal association: Sometimes researchers can determine a rough age for a fossil based on established ages of other fauna from the same layer — especially microfauna, which evolve faster, creating shorter spans in the fossil record for each species. The polarity is recorded by the orientation of magnetic crystals in specific kinds of rock, and researchers have established a timeline of normal and reversed periods of polarity.
Paleomagnetism is often used as a rough check of results from another dating method. 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.
Researchers can first apply an absolute dating method to the layer. They then use that absolute date to establish a relative age for fossils and artifacts in relation to that layer.
Anything below the Taupo tephra is earlier than ; anything above it is later. 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. Egyptologists, for example, created a relative chronology of pre-pharaonic Egypt based on increasing complexity in ceramics found at burial sites. Unlike observation-based relative dating, most absolute methods require some of the find to be destroyed by heat or other means.
Certain unstable isotopes of trace radioactive elements in both organic and inorganic materials decay into stable isotopes. This happens at known rates. By measuring the proportion of different isotopes present, researchers can figure out how old the material is. Here are some of the most common radiometric methods: Sometimes called carbon dating, this method works on organic material. Both plants and animals exchange carbon with their environment until they die. Afterward, the amount of the radioactive isotope carbon in their remains decreases.
Measuring carbon in bones or a piece of wood provides an accurate date, but only within a limited range. It would be like having a watch that told you day and night. Also called single crystal argon or argon-argon Ar-Ar dating, this method is a refinement of an older approach known as potassium-argon K-Ar dating, which is still sometimes used.
Both methods date rock instead of organic material. As potassium decays, it turns into argon. But unlike radiocarbon dating, the older the sample, the more accurate the dating — researchers typically use these methods on finds at least , years old. While K-Ar dating requires destroying large samples to measure potassium and argon levels separately, Ar-Ar dating can analyze both at once with a single, smaller sample.
The uranium-thorium method is often helpful for dating finds in the 40, to ,year-old range, too old for radiocarbon but too young for K-Ar or Ar-Ar. Trapped Charge Dating Brosko Over time, certain kinds of rocks and organic material, such as coral and teeth, are very good at trapping electrons from sunlight and cosmic rays pummeling Earth. Researchers can measure the amount of these trapped electrons to establish an age. But to use any trapped charge method, experts first need to calculate the rate at which the electrons were trapped.
This includes factoring in many variables, such as the amount of radiation the object was exposed to each year. These techniques are accurate only for material ranging from a few thousand to , years old — some researchers argue the accuracy diminishes significantly after , years.
Silicate rocks, like quartz, are particularly good at trapping electrons. Researchers who work with prehistoric tools made from flint — a hardened form of quartz — often use thermoluminescence TL to tell them not the age of the rock, but of the tool. After shaping flint, toolmakers typically dropped the rocks into a fire. Archaeologists also frequently use TL to date ceramics, which are also exposed to high temperatures during manufacture. Similar to TL, optically stimulated luminescence measures when quartz crystals in certain kinds of rock last saw sunlight.
That emitted light, the signal, can be used to calculate when the sample was last exposed to sunlight. ESR, which measures trapped electrons using magnetic fields, is related to magnetic resonance imaging, the medical technique that allows doctors to look for tumors or peek inside your creaking knee.