Thermoluminescence: 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.Paleontologists still commonly use biostratigraphy to date fossils, often in combination with paleomagnetism and tephrochronology.
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.
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.
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.
Certain unstable isotopes of trace radioactive elements in both organic and inorganic materials decay into stable isotopes. 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: Radiocarbon dating: Sometimes called carbon-14 dating, this method works on organic material.
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 232; anything above it is later.
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.