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Absolute Dating.
by Liam Byrne
Student No. 07101898

(1AK4). Diploma in Archaeology, NUI Galway Module 1: AR130. Introduction to Archaeology

Essay 2.

National University of Ireland Galway 2007

The basic problem faced by historians and antiquarians right up to the eighteenth century was that although they were able to pursue their quest for origins through the surviving historical records, beyond the earliest documents lay a complete void. This led to the creation of myth and legend peopled by ancestors and gods (Greene, 2002, 6). From the time that archaeology began to take a more scientific approach to its work the holy-grail has always been to put actual dates on the artefacts that are found on site. This led, from the 1860s onwards, to the development of typology and to the careful recording of site stratigraphy. These methods of dating are known as relative dating. Relative dating allows us to say that something is relatively younger or older than something else. (Renfrew, 2001, 170). It was not until the major expansion in the sciences, particularly physics, in the middle of the twentieth century however, that the tools began to appear to help archaeologists in their quest for absolute dates. Absolute dating is a general term applied to a range of techniques that provide estimates of the age of objects, materials or sites in real calendar years either directly or through a process of calibration with materials of known age. Such techniques rely on principles that lie outside the influence of the makers and users of the material being dated, for example radiocarbon dating. Various calendars are used to express absolute dates. Some scientists preferring BP or before present; the scientific present being conventionally taken as AD 1950. In archaeology the use of BC and AD based on the Gregorian Calendar is commonly used in Europe and America, although other calendars apply to specific cultures in other regions and these are used too, where appropriate (Darvill, 2002, 2). Absolute dating makes it possible to give a date in years. (Renfrew, 2001, 170). Methods of absolute dating which have been developed to date include; calendars, varves, tree-rings, radiocarbon dating, potassium argon, uranium series, fusion track, thermo-luminescence & optical dating, electron spin resonance, obsidian hydration, amino-acid racemization, cation ratio, archaeo-magnetism and geomagnetic reversals. (Renfrew, 2001, 128). New forms, and modifications of existing techniques, are continuing to appear all the time. Absolute dating is perhaps the one area of archaeology where the multidisciplined approach is most evident. Many of the absolute dating techniques are conducted by scientists whose knowledge is, strictly speaking, not historical. Because of the complexity of the methods close collaboration between scientists, historians, prehistorians and excavators is required (Greene, 2002, 180). The precision of dating helps determine the types of questions the archaeologist might ask of the site and best results are obtained when two methods are used together to cross-check the findings e.g. radiocarbon dating and tree-ring dating (Renfrew, 2001, 170). All techniques have their advantages and disadvantages. For the purpose of this essay the following methods of absolute dating will be briefly examined calendars, treerings and radiocarbon dating.

Calendars and chronologies that people developed from ancient times still have great value today. The main points to note when using this method are; (1) the chronological system must be carefully reconstructed and any lists of rulers, kings etc. must be reasonably complete, (2) the list must be capable of being linked to our present calendar (otherwise it is known as a floating chronology) and (3) the artefact, feature or structure to be dated, must somehow be related to the chronology. (Renfrew, 2001, 129). Very old examples of chronological lists exist from ancient Egypt thirty one dynasties, divided into old, middle and new kingdoms, South America the Maya calendar had a 260 day cycle meshed with a 365 day cycle (Renfrew, 2001, 130), Europe the Roman emperors, and ancient China - dynasties. Unfortunately this method is not so good for Ireland because of the lack of surviving written documents. The technique has been used however! Following the discovery of human remains buried in a lost church site at Kilteasheen in North Roscommon in 2006, entries in The Annals of Boyle led Dr. Tom Finan to speculate that the remains might have been those of victims of the great plague that devastated the area between 1347 and 1351. DNA tests on the teeth of the victims will, it is hoped, provide evidence of what could be the first Black Death burial site in Ireland (and perhaps Europe) (Roscommon Champion, 2006). Scientific cross-checking by another method, of suitable items from the site, could also be used to support the dates from the annals and confirm the veracity of the historical framework (Greene, 2002, 180). Other examples of calendars from the Irish historical context are The Annals of the Four Masters, The Annals of Tigernach and The Annals of Connacht. Tree-rind dating or dendrochronology was developed by US astronomer A.E. Douglas in the early years of the twentieth century. By 1930 absolute dates could be ascribed to many major sites. The technique was introduced into Europe at the end of the 1930s and by the 1960s the use of statistical procedure and computers had laid the foundations for long tree-ring chronologies that are now so useful for archaeologists (Renfrew, 2001, 135). The method is based on the concept that in any given area the growth of rings in a tree will vary from year to year and this variation can be measured. A relatively modern piece of wood from an old house could be used to begin the sequence. An older piece of timber, but with some overlap will push the sequence further back and this process can be continued with more pieces of overlapping timber until a long tree-ring chronology is produced. A sample from an archaeological site can then be matched to the relevant section of the chronology and a date produced. Such tree-ring chronologies for Ireland have been produced to ca. 6000 BC (NUIG lecture 13/11/07). Tree-ring dating has two uses (1) as a means of calibrating or correcting radiocarbon dates (see below) and (2) as an independent dating method in its own right. The third method for discussion is, perhaps, the one most often mentioned in the popular press. Almost everyone with any interest in archaeology will have heard of radiocarbon dating!

Radiocarbon dating was developed by William Frank Libby, an American chemist and atomic physicist who was born in 1908 and who worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb, during World War II. From 1959 to 1962 he was Professor of Chemistry at the University of Chicago and in 1960 he won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his invention of radiocarbon dating. (Darvill, 2002, 229). Radiocarbon dating is based on the fact that all living organisms contain a small but constant proportion of a radioactive isotope of carbon, 14C. When an organism dies the uptake of 14C ceases and the amount that is present at death begins to decay. The half-life of 14C (i.e. the time it takes for the radiation to reduce by half) was calculated by Libby to be 5568 years. By measuring the radioactivity of the carbon that remains in the specimen under study, its age can be calculated. This was a major breakthrough for archaeologists. (Darvill, 2002, 350). Radiocarbon dates were first validated by testing against known historical samples. Libby used finds from 5000 year old Egyptian pyramids which had been dated by historical records. (Greene, 2002, 180). But by the 1970s some difficulties had arisen. It was discovered that the amount of 14C absorbed by an organism was not constant and calculations had been skewed as a result. The problem was soon overcome by cooperation. Tree-ring data was used to provide a calibration curve which can be used with the radiocarbon data to give an accurate date for the sample. (NUIG lecture 13/11/07). Radiocarbon determinations are usually expressed as an age BP (Before Present i.e. before 1950) or RCYBP. Calibration with curves derived from tree-ring chronologies give a calendar date, usually expressed as BC or AD, or CAL.BC / CAL.AD. Radiocarbon dating is useful back to ca. 70,000 years ago. (Darvill, 2002, 350). The disadvantage of radiocarbon dating is that it can only be used on what were once living organisms. Radiocarbon will not date a bronze axe, but if the axe has been found as part of an organised excavation then carbon materials found in association with the axe, i.e. in the same stratigraphic layer, can be dated and the axe dated by association. This will only work, of course, where the context is known. It will not work for stray finds. Traditional methods of dating (relative dating) are still important when it comes to understanding the totality of an archaeological site. They have not been replaced (Greene, 2002, 180) but have been enhanced by the new scientific techniques of absolute dating which have been developed in the past 50 years or so and which continue to be refined and developed, even today. The age old goal of the archaeologist to know the date of his artefact or site, and therefore to place it in context with other artefacts, sites and other civilizations has now been achieved. END

References / Bibliography. The following works were used in the writing of this essay. Darvill, T. 2002; The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology; Oxford; Oxford University Press. Greene, K. 2002; Archaeology: An Introduction. Fourth Edition; Abington; Routledge. Hickey, P. 2006 Did Boyle dig unearth remains of victims of Black Plague? in The Roscommon Herald 27 June 2006. Lecture notes taken on 13th. November 2007. NUIG Diploma in Archaeology held at Roscommon Community College. Renfrew, C & Bahn, P. 2001; Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice; London; Thames & Hudson Ltd.