Dating Techniques In Archeology — I

Jan 26, 2022 | Tools Archeol | 0 comments

Dr. Johnson C. Philip

An artifact, an inscription, or a mummy can be placed in historical context and interpreted only if one can speak with some certainty about what period it belongs to. The closer an object is to an event, the better one can interpret the event or the object, and the farther it is the less its relation to the given event. A cult object found from the home-town of Abraham, but used only two millennia after the time of the Patriarch, would throw less specific light on his life and more on the culture millennia after him.

Finding the collapsed walls of ancient Jericho is exciting. But this discovery is useless for Biblical archeology unless it can be demonstrated that this even happened within the dates specified by the Biblical historian. If someone can definitely establish that the discovered event happened 500 years before or after the dates demanded by the Bible, it automatically becomes useless for a possible correlation with the conquest mentioned in the Bible.

Thus attempts to develop methods to ascertain dates of artifacts and events have always been there right from the beginning of Archeology. Initially it was sufficient to know the country of origin and the general era, but as archeology was increasingly used to reconstruct ancient history with a measure of certainty, more accurate dates became important. But since most of the earlier archeological investigations were not done systematically, this immediately posed a problem.

Initial Problems Faced In Dating: Since the initial excavations [for almost a century] were done haphazardly, the work of the archeologists was often no different from the grave-robbers. One robbed it, while the other plundered it, but both of them did it for personal gains. Thus most archeological diggings were unplanned and random, without any substantial record-keeping, and the eyes were fixed only on “major” artifacts. Things considered minor such as pot-shreds and pieces of bones and food were simply thrown away. Much evidence that could lead to reliable dating [specially with the help of Radiocarbon Dating] were lost for ever.

Further, since the artifacts were seen more as collectibles rather than objects of historical study, and since in those days the finders were keepers, the items discovered were simply divided among the collaborators. Some ended in their personal collection, while others were sold to status-conscious people in Europe and America, and some were even presented to rulers of various countries as souvenirs. This immediately destroyed the context in which these artifacts were found, destroying the opportunity to correlate them in any objective way, for if one of them could be dated in the place of discovery with certainty, the others could also be dated.  Such an opportunity is lost for a large number of precious finds.

Worse, though many of the items now rest in museums where people [or researchers] can have access to them, a large number of the more attractive and precious artifacts have found their way into private collections of antique collectors worldwide. Most of them zealously guard their treasures, and not not give access to these for any purpose. Often when some of these people pass away,  everything falls into the hands of their heirs who might have no appreciation for their historical value. Faced with the need to raise funds for their pet projects, or even to finance their vices, they often sell these in the antique black market. Others simply dump them in their attics, remaining lost for long time, or are even destroyed by people who have no idea of their historical value.

A good example what might happen to ancient artifacts in private possession is the story of what is popularly called Jenkins Venus. An ancient statue of goddess Venus, it was considered so precious by the original buyer that he had an entire Roman style building specially commissioned to house the statue. But his heirs did not have money to maintain it all, and sole it in auction to close to  eight million pounds [approximately 15 million US Dollars].

Once some order came into archeological excavations, and once people started to reconstruct ancient history of places from where such finds came, the importance of dating them in situ grew upon them. It is only then that methods of dating began to be developed. However, this happened so late that even today a large number of finds available for public research still await more precise dating.

Development Of Dating In Archeology
Archeology is a science that has its origin in grave-robbers, antique hunters, status conscious collectors, gold-seekers, and the quacks who used ground-up mummies as cure for a number of diseases. Thus an attempt at dating was not usually done even by those who collected ancient artifacts for more serious purposes. However, with the development of interest in the history of ancient civilizations, there were some attempts to date finds in a more precise manner. This  was, however, hindered by the random manner in which most of the earlier “academically oriented” excavations were conducted.

Serious development of dating took place for the first time in 1890 when Flinders Petrie started work at Tell el Hesi. He drew attention of excavators to the fact that most mounds in the middle east were not a single ruined town, but rather a series of ruined towns one on top of the other, with the oldest one at the bottom and the most recent one at the top. Maybe the last town on top was ruined because it was abandoned, but almost all the previous ones were ruined after the town was defeated by enemy forces. And most invaders had the habit of rebuilding over the ruins of the conquered town, after they raged most of it to a suitable level. Nothing was thrown away, and everything from the defeated town became part of the filling.

Thus if a vertical shaft is dug carefully, one would see several distinct layers one below the other till one reached the virgin soil or bedrock.  This became obvious at Tell el Hesi where a wadi [deep cut formed by erosion of mud and brick] exposed an entire vertical section of the mound, and several distinct layers were visible. Petrie measured the relative height of the layers from mean sea level, and created a chronology which was then applied to other places close by. 

FJ Bliss, who followed Petrie to work at this site reinvestigated, and established that the method gave some good results. In 1894 he combined the results of his work with that of Petrie, and established a rough chronology as far back as 1500 BC. However, soon it became obvious that this method is good only for a limited area because the scale established in one region might not have any correlation with the strata in mounds far removed from the first ones. Further, the method fell short of the goal in dating layers in those mounds where the layers overlapped, where they were not sufficiently horizontal, or where some layers were missing [because there was simply no human habitation there for several hundred years].  In spite of this weakness this method brought in quite some order in the chaotic chronology of the Tells investigated, but the need for a more accurate and objective chronology soon became obvious.  The next important development was Pottery-based-dating.

Using pottery for dating might surprise many, but this need not be so. A comparison of pottery obtained from several cultures will immediately show even to the initiated layman that they exhibit distinct characteristics. This being so, a researcher can deduce much more information in a reliable manner, specially when an abundance of pottery is discovered from the same site. And this is often the case because pottery happens to be the most essential item in all ancient houses. Since they were mud or clay-based, they were relatively cheap. But once broken, they are of no use. Such pieces, often thrown into common dumps, survive unchanged for millennia.  And when there is plenty of sample material, it makes deductions all the more objective.

Pottery-based Dating was pioneered, among others, by WF Albright. He was actively involved in the archeology of Palestine from 1920 to 1936. An exceptionally bright scientist, he had the special ability to apply information from several areas of knowledge into archeology. Because of this special ability, he took up an extensive study of pottery discovered from numerous places, compared their shapes, the available absolute dates related to them, the available relative dates, and so on, and proposed a pottery-based chronology based upon this exhaustive information.

Much of the result of this pioneer study was visible in his publication on the pottery of Tell Beit Mirsim in 1932 and 33.  In it he was able to explain the chronology-determination based upon his study of Palestinian pottery. This work was then taken up and both expanded and refined by many others. 

Though Pottery-based Dating was initially established only for Palestine, the work was eventually expanded to, and correlated with, the pottery of Egypt, Babylon, Mesopotamia, and practically all of the lands which are important for Bible studies. What’s more, scribes based in countries like Egypt have left behind so many absolute dates [based upon lunar and solar eclipse, king lists, etc] that these can be used to calibrate the Pottery-based chronology of Egypt to a very high level of accuracy. This in turn can be used to compare potter found in those countries which had plenty of interaction with Egypt, as Egyptian pottery would find a place in these countries also. When this pottery is compared with the local ones, their dates can be determined with some certainty, and so on.

As a result of decades of careful work on pottery, correlated with absolute chronologies, helped by discoveries of modern science of dating, and compared with neighboring countries, Pottery-based Dating has become an important component of dating in Biblical lands.

Pottery-based Dating is only one of the many available. It has been described here in so much detail mainly because of its close relation with, and development from, the process of archeological discovery itself. However, numerous other methods of dating are also available, and they are often used individually or with other methods to arrive at dates that are as accurate as possible.  The most important ones among these are described below.

Dating Techniques Used By Archeologists
Dozens of techniques are now applied, often more than one to the same object, to determine the dates as accurately as is possible. These techniques can be divided into two: relative dating methods and absolute dating methods. As is obvious from the name, the latter gives more accurate results compared to the former.

One should realize that not all methods can be used for dating all kinds of discoveries. Further, some of them, such as Cultural Affiliation Dating, can be used on a wide variety of artifacts whereas some such as Radio-Carbon Dating can be used only on things having a biological origin. But then this should not surprise any because tools of science have both their range as well as their boundaries.

The major Relative and Absolute methods of dating used in archeology are as follows:

Relative Dating Techniques

  • Cultural Affiliation
  • Cation Ratio
  • Fluorine Dating
  • Obsidian Hydration
  • Patination
  • Pollen Analysis
  • Rate Of Accumulation
  • Seriation
  • Varve Analysis

Absolute Dating Techniques

  • Archeomagnetism
  • Astronomical Dating
  • Dendrochronology
  • Electron Spin Resonance
  • Fission Track
  • Opacity Stimulation Luminescence
  • Oxidizable Carbon Ratio
  • Racemization
  • Thermoluminiscence
  • Radio-Carbon Dating

To Be Continued In Part II

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