How Old Is That? Dating in the Ancient World

An introduction to scientific dating methods

alexander-the-great-berlin

A DATE WITH ALEXANDER THE GREAT. Coins such as the one shown here—dating to c. 336–323 B.C.E.—can be used to precisely date prominent people. When coins are combined with written records and astrological events, the exact date of certain events can be calculated. Photo: Münzkabinett der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz.

Archaeology seeks to answer many important questions but one of the most important, and arguably the most controversial, is: When? When did an event happen? When did a person live? When was a house built and when was it abandoned? When did this jar fall out of use? The question can be asked of almost anything across the world. How do archaeologists find the answers, and do the methods vary based on what is being asked?

In the September/October 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, David A. Warburton provides an introduction to scientific dating methods in his article “Dating in the Archaeological World.” This is the first article in a new BAR series called Biblical Archaeology 101.

According to Warburton, there are “are two types of dating: relative dating, which places objects within a timeline relative to other objects discovered locally, and absolute dating, which seeks to establish a fixed date corresponding to the rest of world history.”

In some ways, relative dating is easier. The archaeologist is usually familiar with objects found at their site and at sites in the surrounding area and can quickly ascertain the correct context. This is beneficial, because according to Warburton:

We are typically more confident establishing dates of objects in our own field of study with relative accuracy, as we know the material. However, when scholars assess objects outside their own field, they generally have to rely on the testimony of others. This often results in confusion, because chronological debates and issues of chronological probability are fairly nuanced and often familiar only to those working within their own field of study.

Interested in the latest archaeological technology? Researchers at the UCSD’s Calit2 laboratory released the free BAS eBook Cyber-Archaeology in the Holy Land — The Future of the Past, featuring the latest research on GPS, Light Detection and Ranging Laser Scanning, unmanned aerial drones, 3D artifact scans, CAVE visualization environments and much more.

Absolute dating can be a bit trickier, because while archaeologists can understand how people/objects/events relate to one another, they cannot always assign exact—absolute—dates to everything. As Warburton explains:

We basically employ every possible means available, combining (1) relative “typological” and “stratigraphic” chronologies with (2) textual sources recording astronomical observations, dates relating to kings and/or buildings, etc., and (3) more precise means such as radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology, along with (4) numismatic evidence linked to archaeological contexts and textual sources.

hochdorf-burial

WORN DOWN BURIAL MOUND. The burial of a Celtic prince at Hochdorf in southwestern Germany was almost completely worn away when discovered, but it has since been reconstructed to its original height of 20 feet. For now, it is impossible to date this burial precisely, but it is important to recognize that burials such as this were happening in the Celtic world around the same time the Persians conquered Egypt in 525 B.C.E. Photo: Keltenmuseum Hochdorf/Enz.

Many elements hinder the archaeologist or historian in the search for an exact date, including difficulties inherent to historical calendars (the ancients didn’t all keep time the same way) and (ancient) mistakes in record-keeping.

Curious as to how archaeologists overcome these difficulties? Want to learn more about scientific dating methods? Interested in discovering the different ways the ancients recorded time? Read the full article “Biblical Archaeology 101: Dating in the Archaeological World” by David A. Warburton as it appears in the September/October 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Subscribers: Read the full article “Biblical Archaeology 101: Dating in the Archaeological World” by David A. Warburton in the September/October 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Interested in the latest archaeological technology? Researchers at the UCSD’s Calit2 laboratory released the free BAS eBook Cyber-Archaeology in the Holy Land — The Future of the Past, featuring the latest research on GPS, Light Detection and Ranging Laser Scanning, unmanned aerial drones, 3D artifact scans, CAVE visualization environments and much more.

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Does Radiocarbon Dating Accuracy Help Us Determine Bible Chronology?

How Ancient Jews Dated Years

A Comet Gives Birth to an Empire

Herod’s Death, Jesus’ Birth and a Lunar Eclipse

When Was Jesus Born—B.C. or A.D.?

Newly Deciphered Dead Sea Scroll Reveals 364-Day Calendar

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  • Sherri says

    I liked the story. Interesting story.


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