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.
Before more precise absolute dating tools were possible, researchers used a variety of comparative approaches called relative dating.
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.
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.
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.
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 500,000 years old — some researchers argue the accuracy diminishes significantly after 100,000 years.
Unlike observation-based relative dating, most absolute methods require some of the find to be destroyed by heat or other means.
This family of dating methods, some more than a century old, takes advantage of the environment’s natural radioactivity.
Paleomagnetism is often used as a rough check of results from another dating method.