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The University of Southampton

ARCH2036 Critical Chronologies: Archaeological dating

Module Overview

The development of absolute dating methods has had the most profound effect on our understanding of the past. All self-respecting archaeologists should have a basic grounding in radiocarbon dating, but many other dating techniques exist and are appropriate for particular archaeological materials. As well as covering radiocarbon dating, the module covers most of the dating methods of relevance to archaeology from dendrochronology of historical wood back to K/Ar dating of early hominines. The scientific basis of each technique will be covered, but the main focus will be on the application of the dating methods to archaeology through examination of case studies. In particular we will look at how, why and when the scientists have got it wrong, and what archaeologists need to know to spot a dodgy date.

Aims and Objectives

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • The scientific principles behind the major dating methods
  • When, and on which material particular dating methods are appropriate (e.g. suitable material or environments)
  • The circumstances in which particular dating methods are considered controversial or inaccurate
  • The major chronological issues in archaeology and how they relate to, for example, the origins of modern humans, the human colonization of Australia, or the extinction of Neanderthals
Subject Specific Intellectual and Research Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Take a critical approach to dating and chronology and appreciate where dating may be inappropriate or inaccurate.
  • Interpret dating evidence in terms of archaeological chronologies.
  • Incorporate dating evidence into archaeological arguments.
  • Design and plan practical dating projects.
Transferable and Generic Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Engage better with scientific data
  • Research and discover sources
  • Improve your scientific and archaeological essay writing and know how to structure an argument incorporating scientific data
  • Improve your presentation skills
  • Manage your time to meet assignment deadlines
Subject Specific Practical Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Confidently approach to the scientific and archaeological dating literature.
  • Collate, synthesise and present chronological information


The module begins with an introduction of the key concepts. These include an outline of radioactive processes, the measurement of radioactivity, dealing with errors, accuracy and precision. Each week a number of students will present a seminar on specific chronological issues which will be followed by a discussion. Typically, the syllabus will include the following: • Is there an accurate date for the Tabun C1 Neanderthal? • What is the earliest reliably dated modern human in Africa? Does this reliably support an African Origin for modern humans? • Were modern humans and Neanderthals contemporary in the near east? How well do dates from the different methods agree? • Was the extinction of the Australian Megafauna caused by the arrival of humans? • Can dating demonstrate the extinction of Neanderthals in Europe was caused by the influx of modern humans? • What are the specific advantages of archaeomagnetic dating over radiocarbon? • What factors influence the radiocarbon content of the atmosphere and what methods have been used to calibrate radiocarbon beyond the tree-ring record? • What non-destructive absolute dating methods are available? How reliable can they be considered. • How reliable is uranium series dating of bone? • What are the problems in dating the British Iron-Age, and what attempts have been made to overcome them? • Outline, using examples how Bayesian analysis can improve radiocarbon chronologies. • How can past diet affect the radiocarbon dating of humans? What can be done to correct for it? • How does the ‘Radiocarbon Barrier’ affect our chronologies and what can be done to cross it? • Discuss the dating of the Bronze Age (Minoan) eruption of Santorini. • Review the dating evidence for the Human colonization of The Americas

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Teaching methods include • Lectures • Student led seminars Learning activities include • Presenting a seminar • Seminar discussion • Back-ground reading • Assessed Essay

Independent Study126
Total study time150

Resources & Reading list

Pike, A.W.G. & Pettitt, P.B (2006). Other Laboratory Dating Methods. A Handbook of Archaeology. , pp. 337-372.

Grun, R. (1991). Potential and problems of ESR dating. Nuclear Tracks and Radiation Measurement. ,18 , pp. 143-153.

Aitken, M.J. (1990). Science-Based dating in Archaeology. 

Aitken M.J.; Stringer, C.B. and Mellars, P.A. (eds.) (1993). The Origin of Modern Humans and the Impact of Chronometric Dating. 

Bar-Yosef, O (2000). The impact of radiocarbon dating on old world archaeology: past achievements and future expectations. Radiocarbon. ,42 , pp. 23-39.

Grün, R. (2006). Direct dating of human fossils. American Journal of physical Anthropology. ,43 , pp. 2—48.

Schwarcz, H. P. (1980). Absolute age determination of archaeological sites by uranium series dating of travertines. Archaeometry. ,22 , pp. 3—24.

Clark, A.J., Tarling, D.H. and Noël, M. (1988). Developments in archaeomagnetic dating in Britain. Journal of Archaeological Science. ,15 , pp. 654-667.

Pike, A.W.G. & Pettitt, P.B. (2003). U-series dating and human evolution. Reviews in Mineralogy and Geochemistry. ,52 , pp. 607-630.

Renfrew, C. and Bahn, P. (1991). Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice (Pages 129- 37). 



MethodPercentage contribution
Essay  (2000 words) 50%
Seminar presentation  (12 minutes) 15%
Written assignment 35%


MethodPercentage contribution
Essay 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

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