Measuring carbon-14 in bones or a piece of wood provides an accurate date, but only within a limited range.Says Shea: “Beyond 40,000 years old, the sample is so small, and the contamination risk so great, that the margin of error is thousands of years.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.Paleomagnetism: Earth’s magnetic polarity flip-flops about every 100,000 to 600,000 years.The polarity is recorded by the orientation of magnetic crystals in specific kinds of rock, and researchers have established a timeline of normal and reversed periods of polarity.Researchers can measure the amount of these trapped electrons to establish an age.But to use any trapped charge method, experts first need to calculate the rate at which the electrons were trapped.
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.
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.
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.