Stratigraphic Dating

Stratigraphy refers to layers of sediment, debris, rock, and other materials that form or accumulate as the result of natural processes, human activity, or both. An individual layer is called a stratum; multiple layers are called strata.

At an archaeological site, strata exposed during excavation can be used to relatively date sequences of events. At the heart of this dating technique is the simple principle of superposition: Upper strata were formed or deposited later than lower strata.

stratigraphic profile

Applying the principle of superposition, we know that Stratum A was deposited after Stratum B, Stratum B was deposited after Stratum C, and so on. Without additional information, however, we cannot assign specific dates or date ranges to the different episodes of deposition. In this example, archaeologists might radiocarbon date the basket fragment or bone awl in Stratum E, and they could use artifact seriation to obtain fairly precise date ranges for Strata A, B, C, and E. If the date on the car license plate is preserved, they can say with certainty that Stratum A was deposited in that year or later.