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Dating, from casual to serious, is likely to involve romance and sexual activity, which distinguishes it from social outings between people who consider themselves merely friends (Newman 1999). It is related to two broader processes—courtship and mate selection. Historically, the term courtship has been applied to situations where the intent to marry was explicit and referred to the socializing between young adults on the path to marriage (Rothman 1984). The term mate selection refers to how we choose someone to marry and involves structural and social factors such as the nature of the "marriage market" (the persons from among whom we select our partners), and considerations such as age, race, class, education, religion, and cultural ideas (Schwartz and Scott 1955). The vast majority of daters are unmarried, and most studies of dating have used samples of college students who are more diverse than in the past, and are more like the general population than a group of social elites.

In contemporary North American society, "dating is the recognized means by which most people move from being single to being coupled" (Newman 1999, p. 176). However, it is not necessarily the route to couplehood in all societies. David Newman draws a distinction between individualist cultures (e.g., western Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia) and collectivist cultures (e.g., China, Vietnam, and Japan), pointing out that because the former allow free choice of potential spouses, they are more likely to include dating than are collectivist cultures.

In collectivist cultures such as China, young people (especially in the larger cities) may "go out" together, but this is probably courtship rather than dating, because their coupling has been prearranged and the goal of marriage is fixed. Another example is India where marriages are still arranged by families or trusted go-betweens. When young people are chosen for each other, it is not considered necessary that they know each other well before marriage and love is scarcely a consideration. When a meeting is arranged, following an exchange of photographs and a resume, it is not a meeting that may be followed by dates. Rather, it is a meeting to answer the question, "Am I going to marry this person?" Thus, dating, as Westerners understand it, is not applicable. Letters and flowers may be exchanged, but the couple may not spend much, if any, time together. Love is expected to grow after marriage. Faith in religion and in the wisdom of those who arranged the pairing is the basis for this system. The system prevails among Muslims in America as well as in India (Ettenborough 1998).

A third non-western example is Japan. Only about 10 percent of matings are prearranged, and others may avail themselves of "dating parties," members-only bars (where men pay steep fees and women merely register), or cell-phone dating network services (French 2001). China suffers from a huge lack of marriageable women (men outnumber women nearly two to one) and this gap will become more severe "as the first wave of people born under China's 'one-child policy' hits the marriage market. In the near future . . . countless young men may have little or no chance of landing a wife" (Chu 2001). One result is the abduction of women by "fixers" who sell them to men as wives. Under these circumstances, which have already affected thousands of Chinese women, there is neither dating nor courtship.

In marked contrast, dating in Western societies is for the most part similar to the North American pattern, which began only in the last century. Starting around 1900, the selection of dating partners began to become more autonomous (less under family supervision) than before in the United States. This was partly due to the rise of city life versus the previous predominantly rural background of most Americans, and to the related expanded employment opportunities for both sexes in the cities. Choices were less affected by considerations such as wealth (i.e., the ability to support a family) than by personal qualities such as character. Then, from about 1920 to World War II, a system of dating evolved in which there was considerable "playing the field" to demonstrate one's popularity (called casual dating), which might gradually become more exclusive (called going steady). Going steady might in turn result in an engagement or in marriage.

By the 1950s, a youth culture had developed in which dating started at earlier ages than before (e.g., among pre-teens). Moreover, the sexual exploration (ranging from kissing to sexual intercourse) which had previously been part of the last stage of courtship (engagement), now often occurred earlier, even among very young couples.

The "youth revolution" of the 1960s was partly about the right of unmarried people to express themselves sexually and partly about the widespread rejection of the belief that a woman's value lay in her virtue (virginity). The revolution was a struggle for power, freedom, equality, and autonomy, but the gains in freedom undermined the old rules; that is, courtship, and dating within it, began to lose coherence as the what, why, and even how became less clear (Bailey 1988).

Today, self-help books proliferate in response to that lack of clarity; for example, Dating for Dummies (Browne 1996), The Rules (Fein and Schneider 1995), and Mars and Venus on a Date (Gray 1998). Some of these guides are highly traditional, counseling that daters should behave in accordance with pre-1960s gender roles. Some are semi-egalitarian and semi-traditional. Still others, intended primarily for women (such as Lerner's The Dance of Anger, 1997) are egalitarian, rejecting the man-superior/woman-subordinate traditional view. Curiously, scholars who have studied dating behavior report that both men and women who claim to be egalitarian behave in traditional ways on dates (Laner and Ventrone 1998; 2000).


Some aspects of dating are competitive in nature (i.e., a win/lose relationship in which each partner tries to get her or his own way). Researcher Mary Laner (1986, 1989) points out that competitive behaviors can be of three kinds: pleasant, unpleasant, or abusive/aggressive. Pleasant competitive behaviors consist of such tactics as using charm or diplomacy to get one's way (i.e., to win). Unpleasant competitiveness includes tactics such as using sarcasm or deceit to get one's way. Finally, abusive/aggressive tactics include displays of anger, the use of insults, and various forms of violence. Laner (1989) reports that although daters prefer cooperative (egalitarian) behaviors and attitudes, dating is rife with both pleasant and unpleasant competitive behaviors. Pleasant tactics are virtually undetectable. Unpleasant tactics, however, are associated with the likelihood of violence between the partners (such as hitting and grabbing). When asked whether such relationships are violent, fewer men and women say yes than those who identify conflict or disagreements as causing problems. The tactics themselves, however (such as slapping and punching) are reported surprisingly often by these same daters (Laner 1990). Evidently, the power struggle behind the competitiveness remains unrecognized.

Another competitive aspect of dating can be seen in the way men and women deal with potential rivals. Researchers David Buss and Lisa Dedden (1990) report that daters attempt to manipulate others' impressions of them by derogating ("putting down") suspected competitors. Men do this by making derogatory remarks about other men's strength, financial resources, and goals: all traditional masculine characteristics. Women, in contrast, put down potential competitors by derogating their attractiveness and sexual activity (calling them promiscuous), and by questioning their fidelity (e.g., "she cheats on her boyfriend"). Buss and Dedden point out that the tactics men use are more likely to be successful in keeping competitors at bay than those used by women.

Dating has been likened to a market in which the buyer must be wary and in which there is not necessarily truth in advertising. Persons compete, given their own assets, for the most status-conferring date. Willard Waller and Reuben Hill (1951) warned many years ago about the potential for exploitation in both casual and serious dating. Indeed, critics of traditional dating have decried it as a sexist bargaining system in which men are exploited for money and women for sexual favors. The superficiality of dating, its commercialization, the deceit involved, and the high levels of anxiety it can provoke are additional drawbacks. Since status differentials still characterize men and women (although women have gained status in recent years), dating may be seen as a contest in which a struggle for power and control between partners is part of "the game."


The sexual aspect of dating has affected how women and men judge one another's desirability. Susan Sprecher and Kathleen McKinney summarize these attitudes: "a moderate level of sexual experience in a potential partner is more desirable than either extensive sexual experience or no experience at all" (1996, p. 41). Further, they report, men's and women's standards differ somewhat— men want a dating partner with more experience than women want. Studies like theirs are among those based on never-married college students. However, dating following separation or divorce differs from premarital dating in that it may involve a more liberal sexual ethic, be less leisurely, and may include additional considerations such as arrangements for child care.

Delights and Discontents

When daters are asked what's good about dating, they identify the following topics (Laner 1995):

  1. Companionship and communication;
  2. Friendship;
  3. Intimacy;
  4. Freedom of choice;
  5. Good times and having fun;
  6. Love and romance;
  7. Feelings of security;
  8. A sense of specialness;
  9. Learning about another person;
  10. Sharing (mutuality);
  11. An opportunity for personal growth; and
  12. An opportunity for sexual contact.

When asked about problems associated with dating, all of the same topics are identified. Thus, they each have their good and bad aspects. The list shown here appears in sequence—that is, companionship and communication were most often mentioned and sexual contact was least often mentioned. Yet, in terms of problems associated with dating, "a large number of questions were raised about several sexual dilemmas. They focused on problems relating to infidelity, and to differences between men and women regarding sexual attitudes, feelings, and behaviors" (Laner 1995, p. 182).

Communication and Deception

It is interesting that communication is at the top of the list of good things about dating and also high on the list of problematic aspects. A study of taboo topics among unmarried couples reveals that several areas of potential conversation are avoided by partners, primarily for fear of destroying the relationship. The more romantically involved the couple (versus merely platonic friends), the larger the number of topics to be avoided. Avoided areas include almost any that might induce conflict, as well as talk about past partners, and revelations about one's self that could be seen in a negative light (Baxter and Wilmot 1985).

Another aspect of communication that makes dating problematic has to do with deception. Sandra Metts (1989) asked almost four hundred college students about their relationships and 92 percent admitted that they had been deceptive at least once with a dating partner. Lying was most frequently used form of deception (versus distorting or omitting the truth). Metts reports that a plurality of the reasons for lying amounted to blaming one's partner—specifically, "to avoid hurting the partner."

Making Initial Contact

At the beginning of the dating process, we must first be aware of one another and then make a successful contact that results in going out or hanging out—the latter a less formal form of dating—or even hooking up (which is extremely limited, usually indicating a one-night date in which sexual activity is anticipated).

Who makes the initial contact? It is traditionally assumed to be the man. However, when Monica Moore (1985) and her colleagues observed women sitting alone in singles bars, they recorded some fifty-two kinds of flirting behavior that resulted in male contact within fifteen seconds of the behavior. These included smiling, skirt hiking, primping, pouting, and hair-flipping. According to Moore, women who signal the most often are also those who are most often approached by men.

Chris Kleinke, Frederick Meeker, and Richard Staneski (1986) categorized the opening lines that men and women use when meeting a potential date into three types: cute/flippant, innocuous (harmless), and direct. For lines used by men, the least preferred were the cute/flippant lines ("I'm easy, are you?"). For lines used by women, however, men liked both the cute/flippant and the direct lines ("Since we're both eating alone, would you like to join me?"). Women liked the innocuous lines ("Does the #5 bus stop here?") but men didn't. Women who use cute/flippant lines may be setting themselves up for unpleasant situations since many such lines have a sexual connotation. Since virtually no one liked men's cute/flippant lines, their persistence is curious. It may be due to a lack of social skills, reinforcement of such lines by television shows and movies, or fear of rejection.

Dating Scripts

Suzanna Rose and Irene Frieze (1989), who have studied men's and women's scripts for first dates, point out that the behaviors expected of men form the more rigid script. For this reason alone, men may dread asking women out or making mistakes, thus anticipating rejection more than they otherwise might. As noted earlier, men were traditionally expected to be the initiators, the planners, and the decision makers about dates. Women primarily reacted to men's actions. In Rose and Frieze's study, men and women disagreed about only two of forty-seven script items (twenty-seven for men, twenty for women) which suggests that the expectations for each sex are well known by members of both sexes. It also means that first-date behavior is highly predictable and, as also noted earlier, tends to follow traditional lines from beginning to end (i.e., man calls for woman at her home; man attempts a good-night kiss).

Why is it that dates are so highly scripted especially in individualistic cultures like that of the United States, which appear to value openness, naturalness, and spontaneity? First, scripts help daters to make a good first impression (without which there would be no second date). Second, they ease whatever awkwardness daters may feel in view of the fact that they are probably relative strangers.

Following first dates, what motivates daters to continue to go out together? Bert Adams (1979) has identified some of the conditions under which the relationship is likely to continue: (1) if significant others react favorably to the relationship; (2) if the partners react favorably to one another's self-disclosure; (3) if the partners have good rapport; (4) if the partners agree on values; (5) if the partners are at about the same level of physical attractiveness and have similar personalities; (6) if the partners are role compatible (e.g., both traditional or both egalitarian); (7) if the partners can empathize with one another; and (8) if the partners define each other as "right" or even as "the best I can get."

Variations and Changes

Not all traditionalist societies subscribe to arranged marriages in which there is no parallel to "free choice" dating systems. In some (e.g., Borneo, and among the Tepoztlan of Mexico), young men initiate relationships themselves (Ramu 1989). However, contacts that follow are, as in China, not dating but courtship. Among second generation immigrants to the West from collectivist societies, customs may be changing—more or less rapidly depending on the culture of origin and certain other factors such as education. Muslim Arab Americans, for instance, see western dating practices as threatening to several requirements of their patrilineal families. However, their boys are given more latitude to date than are their girls, and in general, group dating is preferred (DeGenova 1997).

In individualist societies, certain aspects of dating are changing. Forms of meeting and getting acquainted now include "video dating services, introduction services, computer bulletin boards, and 900 party line services" (Strong et al. 2001, p. 229)—often called cyberdating. What their effect will be is not clear, but certain changes can already be seen. For instance, in face-to-face meetings, physical appearance is the initial basis of attraction while in cyberdating, face-to-face contact is replaced by conversational skill as the basis for the initial impression. The consequence of this and other changes, however, is as yet unknown.

See also:Attraction; Cohabitation; Communication: Couple Relationships; Love; Mate Selection; Relationship Initiation; Relationship Maintenance; Sexual Communication: Couple Relationships; Sexuality; Singles/Never Married Persons; Social Networks


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mary riege laner

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Dating is a ritualized courting process that developed in the twentieth century as a means for adolescents to engage in approved heterosexual activities. It emerged first in the United States in response to significant social and gender changes in schooling and work, family life, and recreational activities. During the twentieth century, dating spread to other Westernized societies, although it has become increasingly attenuated in the context of the revolution in premarital sexual behavior after the 1960s.

In the early modern world most courtship was supervised by family or other adult community institutions. Formally arranged marriage was never the dominant practice among most Americans, as it was among the European aristocracy and upper middle class, but informal arrangements existed which directed young people's desires toward suitable partners who remained within racial, class, and other boundaries. Most young people did not have either the time or the privacy to engage widely in experimental activities, and the importance of chastity for women among respectable people meant that girls and young women did not venture very far on their own without adult chaperones. These informal controls were able to adapt initially to the emergence in the nineteenth century of the ideal of romantic love and to companionship as a replacement for patriarchy in marital values. More challenging were the dramatic dislocations that accompanied the urban and industrial transformations of the second half of the nineteenth century.

Among the wealthy elite, well-orchestrated rituals surrounding elaborate debutante balls and coming-out ceremonies largely assured that family choices would continue to define the horizons of adolescents and young adults as they moved toward a season of courtship. Thus eighteen- and nineteen-year-old girls were introduced to the proper society from among whom they could choose and be chosen. But among others, especially the large and growing middle class and the respectable working class, the fact that young men and women spent more time away from the watchful guidance of parents became a source of considerable cultural concern and anxiety in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a concern most effectively articulated by social reformer Jane Addams in The Spirit of Youth in the City Streets. Especially problematic was the new freedom of young women. Both boys and girls were now more often found mixing promiscuously in unsupervised work and play environments as adolescent girls went out to work in factories, shops, and offices. These young people often spent their money and free time in unsupervised commercial recreations such as movies, dance halls, and amusement parks. Both male and female adolescents were also staying in school longer as new school attendance laws began to include more older children. The schools, pressed to engage their charges, provided more opportunities for socializing as they searched for ways to keep older and recalcitrant student populations at school. As schools became the arenas for extracurricular clubs, sports, proms, and other events, they also became the site for spontaneous heterosexual socializing. Young people developed dating in these new work and educational contexts as a means to order mate selection and to contain the erotic possibilities that the new freedom from adult supervision made possible.

The apparent freedom of dating and its association with out-of-home and paired activities made the new practice seem risqué and daring in the early twentieth century. By the 1920s, however, it had become generally regarded as a legitimate means of interaction between young men and women during later adolescence and young adulthood. Some immigrant and religious groups still resisted and were appalled by the freedom that dating permitted between strangers, but most native white young people understood that while dating was not supervised by adults it nevertheless had clearly established boundaries enforced by peers that regulated respectability, eligibility, and the routines of sexual access. Moreover, the young not only defined what was attractive, permissible, and popular, but continued to maintain clear class, racial, and ethnic boundaries.

The vast extension of schooling between the world wars to the majority of adolescents (including immigrants) in public high schools, and to a substantial minority in colleges and universities, made these new peer definitions possible. The long hours at school and the shift of authority from home and work to youth-based institutions, along with the coeducational nature of the great majority of these institutions, made peer standards in dating dominant. At schools, a complex social system that included extracurricular activities, sports competitions, fraternities and sororities, literary activities, beauty contests, and other means to define identity and popularity regulated dating behavior. But the system was not closed since the young drew on nonschool institutions for inspiration in setting new nonfamily-based fads and fashions. These relied on both the heterogeneity of populations at school and the enormous expansion of popular culture, especially via movies, popular music, and sports, that provided sources and models for approved behavior, appearance, style, language, dress, and beliefs around which standards of popularity and datability revolved. In expanding the vocabulary of acceptable and proper behavior, popular culture idols helped the young redefine eligibility and expand the limits on sexual propriety in their dating behavior toward more liberated forms.

Starting in the 1920s, a date usually involved one or two couples going out together to a movie, a dance, a soda shop, or a roadside restaurant. In places outside of large cities, this increasingly relied on access to an automobile and became dependent on the outlay of significant amounts of cash to ensure that the treat for the afternoon or evening was acceptable to the dating partner. Commercial considerations were thus embedded into the very structure of the dating relationship, which required that the male treat the female to a good time. Women too were required to expend money on their appearance, wearing fashionable clothes and stylish hairdos, and relying on beauty treatments and up-to-date cosmetics. These consumer-based standards became crucial to the evaluations that each side made of the prospective date and the subsequent decisions about whether dating would continue. They were the basis for at least initial conclusions before other, more subtle, considerations could intervene.

In the 1920s and 1930s, exclusivity was not considered either essential to dating or its only necessary result. Instead, a dating-and-rating syndrome sometimes overwhelmed the long-term courtship objectives of dating, as young men and women of the middle class engaged in a whirl of heterosexual social activities which defined their status in a complex hierarchy of popularity and desirability. Class differences also surfaced, particularly in high school, with working-class youth more likely to see dating as part of marriage-partner selection, while middle-class youth engaged in dating more in terms of entertainment. At the same time, both dating which led to exclusive attachments and dating which was part of a busy social life included a variety of erotic practices that became a standard part of the expected sexual initiation of twentieth-century youth before the premarital sexual revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s.

Some historians have argued that in return for the expenses incurred by the male dating partner some sexual compensation was expected from the female. Whether the exchange was quite so direct and calculated or evolved from a set of expanded possibilities for intimacy and graduated expectations, dating certainly resulted in mutual sexual experimentation. In most cases, these activities fell short of intercourse, involving instead an elaborate pattern of sexual play that included hand-holding, kissing, petting, and fondling. It was well understood that within this evolving pattern women would define the limits of acceptable behavior, while men would try to push those boundaries as far as possible. Most studies of the 1920s and 1930s show that among those whose dating had become exclusive, especially those who were engaged to marry, intercourse would become an occasional or regular part of the dating relationship for about half of these couples. This was usually rationalized as a legitimate expression of the commitment to a long-lasting loving relationship oriented to marriage.

These newly established dating rituals were disrupted by America's entry into World War II, when dating was largely suspended for older couples in the context of a national emergency which emptied schools, colleges, factories, and offices of eligible young men. The war also encouraged more rapid sexual involvement and a rush to marriage. In a related way, war often led to short-term casual sex that some young women saw as their contribution to the war effort, but that seemed to liberate others from the artificial standards that had previously been in place. Among these were thousands of victory girls, urban camp followers who catered to men on short-term leave, and whom the army targeted as potential carriers of venereal disease.

Adolescents, though not so clearly affected by the war, were not entirely shielded from its effects, especially since older adolescents might be inducted as the war accelerated draft call-ups. More significantly, the war changed the pattern of delayed marriage that had become common for all classes and groups during the Depression of the 1930s and the postponement of first conception that had a longer twentieth-century history. After the war, the trend toward early marriage continued and in the 1950s a dramatic baby boom altered American family life in significant ways. While peacetime conditions allowed a return to earlier dating behavior, that behavior had now become more than in the past a matter of adult concern and intervention. It was also shorter since women now married younger than at any time in American history and began to contemplate the road to marriage throughout adolescence. Dating as a route to marriage became both more serious and more hurried. Younger adolescents and even preteens began to appropriate some of their older brothers' and sisters' behaviors, while serious relations became more common earlier in the dating process. Pinning (wearing the fraternity or club pin of a boyfriend), wearing a love anklet, and going steady became regular rituals of 1950s and 1960s dating behavior.

At the same time, adults became more clearly involved in these behaviors. The most obvious form this took was in the elaboration of advice in newspapers, teen magazines, and manuals for adolescents. Adult family and relationship experts, who drew on the increasing American infatuation with the science of psychology as a guide to daily life, intervened in this as in many other arenas of child rearing and self-development. But popular culture too began to reflect new concerns about dating, and a whole genre of movies, including films such as the teen classics Where the Boys Are, and Splendor in the Grass, were based on the erotic charge that resulted from breaking dating taboos.

This whole structure was fundamentally weakened in the late 1960s and 1970s when the rapid legitimization of premarital sexuality removed some of the need for dating etiquette, at least among young adults. For adolescents, too, the more open sexuality that developed during this period made dating rules far less stringent and enforceable. While dating certainly continued and continues to define many heterosexual relationships, the rules became much more flexible (and included the possibility of same-sex dating). The effective use of birth control and the availability of abortion, even for adolescents, after the 1970s meant that rules which had been in place for most of the century and whose objective was always to maintain social standing during a life-cycle phase marked by sexual desire, were hardly as necessary any-more.

While dating has by no means disappeared even in the twenty-first century as adolescents and young adults seek to define just what is permissible and what is not in their mating behavior as they move toward adult life, it now coexists with a range of other activities. Some of these are less dependent on isolated pairing and include group activities associated with alcohol, drugs, and music. Matchmaking and dating servicesmany newly dependent on computers and the Internethave also become much more common and acceptable. Dating has in the meantime shifted to older people, many of whom seek companionship and remarriage after divorce. Dating has become less obviously part of adolescence as age of marriage has once again shifted upward and taboos against premarital sexuality have become less harsh and judgmental.

See also: Adolescence and Youth; Life Course and Transitions to Adulthood; Sexuality; Youth Culture.


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Paula S. Fass

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dating, the determination of the age of an object, of a natural phenomenon, or of a series of events. There are two basic types of dating methods, relative and absolute. In relative dating, the temporal order of a sequence of events is determined, allowing the investigator to surmise whether a particular object or event is older or younger than, or occurred before or after, another object or event. In absolute or chronometric dating, the investigator establishes the age of an object or event in calendar years.

Relative Dating

Before the 20th cent., archaeologists and geologists were largely limited to the use of relative dating techniques. Estimates of the absolute age of prehistoric and geological events and remains amounted to little more than inspired guesswork, as there was no scientific basis for testing such proposals. However, as the basic principles of relative dating progressed during the course of the 19th cent., investigators were able to correctly determine the relative age of many archaeological and geological materials.

Stratigraphic dating is accomplished by interpreting the significance of geological or archaeological strata, or layers. The method begins with the careful drawing and description of strata (the geological or archaeological profile). The profile from one location is then compared with profiles from surrounding sites. Stratigraphic dating assumes that the lower layers in any particular profile are older than the upper layers in that profile ( "the law of superposition" ) and that an object cannot be older than the materials of which it is composed. Igneous masses are dated according to whether they caused metamorphism in the surrounding rock (proof of emplacement in preexisting rock) or whether sediments were deposited on them after they were formed. In geology, a master stratigraphic sequence for a particular region is built up by correlating the strata from different locations with one another. As new locations are investigated, the geologist attempts to fit the new profiles into the master sequence of geological strata for that region. The depth of the strata within the master sequence provides the investigator with the relative date of any particular profile.

Seriation is an archaeological technique involving the description of stylistic changes in artifacts and of changes in the popularity of distinct styles in order to accurately describe the sequence of variation over time. The seriation of stratified deposits permits archaeologists to assess the relative age of particular styles. This information may then be used to surmise the relative age of unstratified deposits (e.g., surface sites).

Technological changes can be used for relative dating of archaeological material. The three-age system devised by the Danish archaeologist Christian Thomsen in the 1830s made use of technological criteria. According to this system, humans passed through three distinct stages of technological development, based on the primary material used to manufacture tools and weapons: the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age.

Biological criteria can also serve as a means for relative dating. Fossils are useful because certain assemblages of species are characteristic of specific geological eras. Pollen analysis, or palynology, involves the microscopic examination of fossil pollen grains in stratified peat and lake deposits. From this, scientists can establish pollen diagrams (describing the relative abundance of different pollen-producing plants at a given point in time) and floral time charts (showing how climate and flora changed over time). The principle of stratigraphic dating is used to establish the relative age of these floral and fossil assemblages. Through the investigation of many different stratigraphic contexts, a master sequence of fossil and floral assemblages may be devised for a region.

Absolute Dating

Absolute dating can be achieved through the use of historical records and through the analysis of biological and geological patterns resulting from annual climatic variations, such as tree rings (dendrochronology) and varve analysis. After 1950, the physical sciences contributed a number of absolute dating techniques that had a revolutionary effect on archaeology and geology. These techniques are based upon the measurement of radioactive processes (radiocarbon; potassium-argon, uranium-lead, thorium-lead, etc.; fission track; thermoluminescence; optically stimulated luminescence; and electron-spin resonance), chemical processes (amino-acid racemization and obsidian hydration), and the magnetic properties of igneous material, baked clay, and sedimentary deposits (paleomagnetism). Other techniques are occasionally useful, for example, historical or iconographic references to datable astronomical events such as solar eclipses (archaeoastronomy).

When archaeologists have access to the historical records of civilizations that had calendars and counted and recorded the passage of years, the actual age of the archaeological material may be ascertained—provided there is some basis for correlating our modern calendar with the ancient calendar. With the decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphics, Egyptologists had access to such an absolute timescale, and the age, in calender years, of the Egyptian dynasties could be established. Furthermore, Egyptian trade wares were used as a basis for establishing the age of the relative chronologies developed for adjoining regions, such as Palestine and Greece. Thus, Sir Arthur Evans was able to establish an accurate absolute chronology for the ancient civilizations of Crete and Greece through the use of Egyptian trade objects that appeared in his excavations—a technique known as cross-dating.

In dendrochronology, the age of wood can be determined through the counting of the number of annual rings in its cross section. Tree ring growth reflects the rainfall conditions that prevailed during the years of the tree's life. Because rainfall patterns vary annually, any given set of tree ring patterns in a region will form a relatively distinct pattern, identifiable with a particular set of years. By comparing the pattern of tree rings in trees whose lifespans partially overlap, these patterns can be extended back in time. By matching the tree rings on an archaeological sample to the master sequence of tree ring patterns, the absolute age of a sample is established. The best known dendrochronological sequences are those of the American Southwest, where wood is preserved by aridity, and Central Europe, where wood is often preserved by waterlogging.

The varved-clay method is applied with fair accuracy on deposits up to 12,000 years old. Streams flowing into still bodies commonly deposit layers (varves) of summer silt and winter clay through the year. Those laid down during the fall and winter have a dark color because of the presence of dead vegetation; those deposited during the rest of the year have a light color. The stratigraphy may also reflect seasonal variation in the velocity of stream flow. By counting each pair of varves the age of the deposit can be determined.

The absolute dating methods most widely used and accepted are based on the natural radioactivity of certain minerals found in rocks. Since the rate of radioactive decay of any particular isotope is known, the age of a specimen can be computed from the relative proportions of the remaining radioactive material and its decay products. By this method the age of the earth is estimated to be about 4.5 billion years old. Some of the radioactive elements used in dating and their decay products (their stable daughter isotopes) are uranium-238 to lead-206, uranium-235 to lead-207, thorium-232 to lead-208, samarium-147 to neodymium-143, rubidium-87 to strontium-87, and potassium-40 to argon-40. Each radioactive member of these series has a known, constant decay rate, measured by its half-life, that is unaffected by any physical or chemical changes. Each decay element has an effective age range, including uranium-238 (100 million to 4.5 billion years) and potassium-40 (100,000 to 4.5 billion years).

Other methods that depend on the effects of radioactive decay include fission track dating and thermoluminescence. Fission track dating is based on the fact that when uranium-238 atoms fission within a solid medium such as a mineral or a glass, they expel charged particles that leave a trail of damage (known as fission tracks) preserved in the medium. The number of tracks per unit area is a function of time and the uranium concentration. Thus it is possible to measure the time that has elapsed since the material solidified. Thermoluminescence, used in dating archaeological material such as pottery, is based on the luminescence produced when a solid is heated; that is, electrons freed during radioactive decay and trapped in the crystal lattice are released by heating, resulting in luminescence. When light is used rather than heat to free the accumulated electrons, the technique is known as optically stimulated resonance. Yet another technique measures the quantity of trapped electrons by detecting the amount of microwave radiation they absorb (electron-spin resonance); it has the advantage that it can be utilized several times on a given sample. All of these techniques have proven somewhat unreliable. Museums sometimes use them to determine if a ceramic is an antique or a modern forgery.

The radioactive carbon-14 method of dating is used to determine the age of organic matter that is several hundred years to approximately 50,000 years old. Carbon dating is possible because all organic matter, including bones and other hard parts, contains carbon and thus contains a scalable proportion of carbon-14 to its decay product, nitrogen-14. The carbon-14, along with nonradioactive carbon-13 and carbon-12, is converted to carbon dioxide and assimilated by plants and organisms; when the plant or animal dies, it no longer acquires carbon, and the carbon-14 begins to decay. The conventional method of measuring the amount of radioactive carbon-14 in a sample involved the detection of individual carbon-14 decay events. In the 1980s a new procedure became available. This technique involves the direct counting of carbon-14 atoms through the use of the accelerator mass spectrometer and has the advantage of being able to use sample sizes up to 1,000 times smaller than those used by conventional radiocarbon dating. The accelerator mass spectrometer technique reduces the amount of statistical error involved in the process of counting carbon-14 ions and therefore produces dates that have smaller standard errors than the conventional method.

Paleomagnetic dating is based on changes in the orientation and intensity of the earth's magnetic field that have occurred over time. The magnetic characteristics of the object or area (e.g., a section of the seafloor) in question are matched to a date range in which the characteristics of the earth's magnetism were similar. Paleomagnetic dating is also based on the fact that the earth periodically reverses the polarity of its magnetism. Different igneous and sedimentary rocks are rich in magnetic particles and provide a record of the polarity of the earth when they were formed. These patterns will be reflected in various geological contexts, such as stratigraphic sequences. Scientists date these changes in polarity through another technique, such as potassium-argon radioactive dating. This has resulted in the calibration of the pattern of changes in the earth's polarity over many millions of years. Scientists can date a new profile by measuring for changes in polarity within the strata and then matching the sequence to the calibrated master stratigraphic sequence of geomagnetic polarity reversals. In archaeomagnetic dating, oriented specimens are recovered from baked immobile archaeological features, such as the soil surrounding a hearth, in order to determine the direction of geomagnetic field at the time they were formed. This procedure results in the plotting of a polar curve, which documents changes in the direction of the magnetic poles for a given region. The polar curve itself does not provide an absolute date but must be calibrated by an independent technique, such as radiocarbon dating.

Chemical dating methods are based on predictable chemical changes that occur over time. Examples include amino-acid racemization, which is potentially useful in situations where no other technique is available to date an archaeological site, and obsidian hydration. The latter is applicable in areas such as Mesoamerica, where obsidian is abundant. Many investigators, however, consider it unreliable.

Fluorine dating is useful to scientists dating early hominid remains. Buried bones take up fluorine from surrounding soils. The amount of fluorine taken up is proportional to the amount in the surrounding deposit and the length of time the bone has been buried. Varying concentrations of fluorine in different deposits preclude the method from being considered absolute, but it can be used to measure the relative ages of bones found in the same deposit.


See E. F. Zeuner, Dating the Past (4th ed. 1970); R. H. Dott and R. L. Batten, Evolution of the Earth (1988); M. J. Aitken, Science-based Dating in Archaeology (1990); W. B. Harland et al., A Geologic Time Scale 1989 (1990).

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