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Both plants and animals exchange carbon with their environment until they die.Afterward, the amount of the radioactive isotope carbon-14 in their remains decreases.Researchers can measure the amount of these trapped electrons to establish an age.

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Certain unstable isotopes of trace radioactive elements in both organic and inorganic materials decay into stable isotopes. By measuring the proportion of different isotopes present, researchers can figure out how old the material is.

Here are some of the most common radiometric methods: Radiocarbon dating: Sometimes called carbon-14 dating, this method works on organic material.

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.

For example, New Zealand’s massive Taupo volcano erupted in A. Relative chronology: Researchers have often constructed timelines of a culture or civilization based on the stylistic evolution of its decorative or dramatic arts — that’s why the method is also sometimes called stylistic seriation.

Generally speaking, the more complex a poem or piece of pottery is, the more advanced it is and the later it falls in the chronology.

When it comes to determining the age of stuff scientists dig out of the ground, whether fossil or artifact, “there are good dates and bad dates and ugly dates,” says paleoanthropologist John Shea of Stony Brook University.

The good dates are confirmed using at least two different methods, ideally involving multiple independent labs for each method to cross-check results.

Sometimes only one method is possible, reducing the confidence researchers have in the results. “They’re based on ‘it’s that old because I say so,’ a popular approach by some of my older colleagues,” says Shea, laughing, “though I find I like it myself as I get more gray hair.” Kidding aside, dating a find is crucial for understanding its significance and relation to other fossils or artifacts.

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