Dating, The Dead Sea Scrolls, and Bir el-Ater

How Can You Date What You Find?

In archaeology there are two main ways to date finds, Relative dating and Absolute dating.

Relative Dating

Relative Dating uses the method of relationships to date finds. This is done is through stratigraphy and typology.

StratigraphyLooking at the position of artefacts in the ground, where they are found; how far down they are; and their relationship to other items found in the same level at the same time. This process is called Stratigraphy – the lower down an artefact is = the older it is; the higher up = the younger in age it is.

Stratigraphy ©

For example, if a find is lower down in the ground than the Medieval layer, but not as far down as the Roman layer, then Relative dating would place it at the period in between – the Early Medieval period (formally called the Dark Ages).

TypologyDifferent time periods in history had different types of artefacts. A common one to look at is the orange Samian Ware pottery produced by the Romans.

We know that the Romans used different styles and designs on their Samian Ware at different periods. Therefore, when we uncover some, we can look at the type and style of design and place it into its relative time sequence.

Pottery types ©
Pottery types

Items that can be dated using the Relative method include ceramics, pottery, and stone tools.

Absolute Dating

Absolute dating uses calendars, chronologies and time scales. It also uses radio carbon dating (14C), dendrochronology (tree-ring dating), thermoluminescence (TL) and world chronologies.

Radio Carbon dating, commonly called 14C, – measures the carbon of an artefact. All living organisms absorb carbon from the atmosphere and when they die or are buried they slowly decay and lose the carbon at a set rate.  The carbon remaining in artefacts can be measured, calibrated, and a date can then be given.

Carbon in Bone ©
Carbon in Bone

Items that can be 14C dated include wood, plants, bone, charcoal, shell and peat. This dating is only used for sites younger 50,000 years.

Dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) – This method is used for dating timber. A sample of the wood is taken and by reading the tree rings and matching them to master tree ring files of different countries, it is possible to find a date when a tree was felled (chopped down) and therefore give a date to the building or artefact.

Dendrochronology  Tree Ring Dating ©
Dendrochronology Tree Ring Dating

Thermoluminescence (TL) – This method measures the radiation of an artefact and the last time it was exposed to it, for example, sunlight. This method is considered better than 14C as it can also measure further back in time, to several hundred thousand years.

World Chronologies – By looking back over past histories and timelines for human evolution it is possible to place artefacts into date ranges even when they are found out of ‘context’ (not in their original positions).

World Timeline ©
World Timeline


Archaeology Wow!! –  The Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947 at Qumran, on the edge of the Dead Sea in Israel. A young Arab shepherd had climbed into a cave looking for one of his goats and found some containers. Portions of the scrolls were sold off individually and this raised awareness to their existence. In 1949 the caves position was discovered.

Dead Sea Scrolls ©
Dead Sea Scrolls

The site of Qumran had been of interest to archaeologists since 1851 when archaeologist de Saucy excavated the cemetery. After the first scrolls were discovered in what is now called Cave 1, Roland de Vaux and G. Lankester Harding excavated the area in 1949. In total 11 caves have been found to contain fragments of the scrolls.

All together around 870 manuscripts have been uncovered in the area; the scrolls were made up of papyrus parchment and one made of copper. The languages are Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Nabataen and they date from the 10th century BC to the 2nd Century AD. The Scrolls contain both Biblical and non-Biblical components. The longest is the Temple Scroll measuring an amazing 8.15 m long!

The Scrolls are believed to have been produced by a group of Jews known as the Essenes. One theory is that the scrolls were placed in the caves for safe keeping by Jews fleeing Jerusalem after the Romans took the city in 70 AD.

A Portion of one of the Scrolls ©
A Portion of one of the Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls are partially held at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, and the Jordan Museum, Amman, Jordan. The following is a list of people who own sections of the Scrolls;


Archaeological Site Guide – Bir el-Ater

Bir el-Ater is an archaeological site in Algeria, Africa, dating back to between c.82,000 – 35,000 years BC and associated with the Aterian civilization.

The Aterian were a Middle Stone Age people who made their tools from stone with the oldest known site dating back to 82,000 years ago. There are not many remains of the people of this period in the region.

Bir el-Ater ©
Bir el-Ater

The Aterian were known to have worn personal items they made for themselves. At the site of Oued Djebbana, Bir-el-Ater, necklace beads made from sea shells have been identified. The site is over 200km from the sea so the shells must have been taken there by people for a purpose. This makes them one of the oldest known examples of personal adornment (World Archaeology) in the world.

Aterian Point ©José-Manuel Benito
Aterian Point
©José-Manuel Benito

Another site is the Eckmuhl Cave where remains of the Aterian have been uncovered through the process of stratigraphy. Finds include projectile points and flakes, the types of which have also been found near Nile. The people hunted cattle, zebra, gazelle however the area underwent environmental changes at this time (Philipson 2005: 131) and their hunting pattern would have reflected this as the area became much drier.

Bir el-Ater is today a modern African city with a population of around 100,000.



Great Books to Read…….


Great Web Pages to Look At…….

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