An image of a Pre-columbian animal-shaped ceramic called "Huaco" from unidentified ancient Peruvian culture. Shutterstock.

New Revolutionary Method for Dating Ancient Pottery Could Rewrite History

The new method can date ancient sites from across the world with remarkable accuracy.

A group of scientists from the University of Bristol has come up with a new, revolutionary method of dating pottery which will enable archaeologists to date prehistoric discoveries across the world with unprecedented precision and accuracy.

According to reports, the new method is already being used to date pottery from a variety of key sites up to 8,000 years old in Britain, Europe, and Africa, and experts are exited.

Archaeological pottery has been used to date archaeological sites for more than a century, and from the Roman period onward it can offer quite an accurate dating. However, when we are looking to accurately date artifacts that date back further back in time, say prehistoric sites of the early Neolithic, accurate dating becomes more difficult because pottery types are often less distinctive and there are no coins or historical records to give context. This is where radiocarbon dating, also known as 14C dating, comes in handy. Until now, archaeologists had to radiocarbon date bones or other organic materials buried with pots to understand their age.

However, the best way to date potty would be to actually date the ceramic material directly. Now, researchers from the University of Bristol have come up with a way to date the fatty acids left behind from food preparation, enabling archaeologists to better date many ancient sites.

Professor Richard Evershed of the University of Bristol Faculty of Chemistry, who led the team, explained that “being able to directly date archaeological pots is one of the “Holy Grails” of archaeology. This new method is based on an idea I had going back more than 20 years and it is now allowing the community to better understand key archaeological sites across the world ”

An image of a prehistoric ceramic jug. Shutterstock
An image of a prehistoric ceramic jug. Shutterstock

The researcher continued: “We made several earlier attempts to get the method right, but it wasn’t until we established our own radiocarbon facility in Bristol that we cracked it. There’s a particular beauty in the way these new technologies came together to make this important work possible, and now archaeological questions that are currently very difficult to resolve could be answered.”

How does the dating method work?

According to researchers, the trick was to isolate individual fatty compounds from food residues, left by cooking meat or milk, protected within the pores of prehistoric pots. The team brought together the latest technologies in high-resolution nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy and mass spectrometry to design a new way to isolate fatty acids and verify that they were pure enough for accurate dating.

The team then had to demonstrate that the new approach gave dates as precise as those given by commonly dated materials in archeology, such as bones, seeds, and wood.

To do this, the team analyzed ancient ceramic grease extracts at a variety of key sites in Britain, Europe, and Africa with precise dates that were up to 8,000 years old. From the famous Sweet Track site in Somerset and others in the French Alsace region, to the Çatalhöyük World Heritage site in central Turkey and the famous Takarkori rock shelter in Saharan Africa, the new method was shown to date sites with incredible accuracy.

“It is very difficult to overstate the importance of this advance to the archaeological community. Pottery typology is the most widely used dating technique in the discipline, and so the opportunity to place different kinds of pottery in calendar time much more securely will be of great practical significance,” explained Professor Alex Bayliss, Head of Scientific Dating at Historic England, the researcher who undertook the statistical analyses.

Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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