Archaeological artefacts are increasingly subjected to a wide range of scientific techniques in order to establish their origin and date, and to explain stylistic and technological developments visible across individual classes of artefact deriving from one “culture” or “period”. With this in mind, assess the usefulness and limitations of the earlier systems of classifications and dating such as seriation and typology. (Discuss using at least 3 different classes of artifact)

There are systems of classification and dating in archaeology that have been used for a long time and can appear primitive when compared to more modern archaeometry techniques, such as organic residue analysis or luminescence dating. In this essay the usefulness and limitations of the earlier methods in modern archaeology will be assessed.


Seriation one such earlier method. Seriation is the ordering of artefacts based up stylistic developments (Adams 1998). It is a sophisticated statistical technique using data from a variety of sites across a long period of time (Grant et al., 2005). Seriation is non-strategraphic and has no dates, leaving a floating chronology. This is makes it a relative dating method (Green 2002). As well as generating a chronological ordering of artefacts, seriation can be useful in reflecting changes in social status, age, or sex of the people the culture. Relative dating methods such as seriation are especially useful when there is no absolute dating method, such as Carbon-14, available.

Seriation can only be used with assemblages from sites where the people are considered to have been part of the same cultural tradition. This is problematic because culture cannot be accurately divided up. There will always be overlaps in culture no matter how it is categorized. Designating an assemblage as belonging to ‘one culture’ excludes it from another when there aren’t actually any lines drawn on the earth separating cultures. Seriation assumes design styles follow a recognizable “battleship curve” (Grant 2005) of popularity on different sites in the same culture. However, defining a site as belonging to the same culture as another site by searching for the same curve (or an overlapping portion of a curve) is archaeological tunnel vision. Does the pottery define the culture or the culture define the pottery? There needs to be some additional evidence that brings the culture from the sites together other than the artefacts found in which patterns of seriation are searched for.

Another problem with seriation is the rapid sorting of artefacts. “Errors resulting from very rapid sorting can sometimes affect as much as 10% of the total body [of sherds]” (Adams 1998).

Seriation also assumes that new artefacts are phased in gradually as others are phased out. This does not always happen (Grant 2005).

In modern archaeology seriation is carried out using computerized algorithms allowing for the raw data for contextual seriation to be ordered into scatter plots and charts. This allows seriation to be useful in explaining stylistic and technological developments even when dealing with hundreds or even thousands of data sets.


Typology is the arranging of artefacts into sequences according to development and changes that may allow them to be placed into a hypothetical chronological order (GREEN 2002, 23).

Here are photographs of examples of typologies taken by myself in the museum at Pech Merle caves in France in August 2010 (photographs inside the caves is prohibited).

Below is a typology of cave paintings. The style of horse becomes more advanced as time goes forward.

Below is a typology of axe heads from the region. The French have ordered them with the oldest on the right.

In this typology the oldest axe heads are at the bottom and the youngest are at the top.

Like seriation, typology is a relative dating method and so cannot provide calendar dates without additional evidence. While on the one hand absolute dating techniques have rendered typology as ‘out dated’, absolute dating can be used to validate a typology by testing a sample of artefacts in the sequence, or testable artefacts found in the same strata. Typology can also be compared to different reference collections from other regions to see if there was influence. It is therefore not only useful locally, but can help see the bigger picture. A limitation that typology shares with seriation is that, “artefacts were made and used by bygone peoples for purposes of theirs, which we may or may not be able to fathom, but typologies are made by us for purposes of ours” (Adams 1998).


Stratigraphy has been used since the 18th century and is likely to continue to be used for a long time because the past is always laid down in strata (Scarre 2009). Stratigraphy is the sorting of these layers deposition into chronological order. The law of superposition means that the layer at the bottom is the original natural and the layers become younger as they ascend. Where past people have lived this natural layering process may have been disturbed during their period of occupation. Archaeologists can analyse the man made layers to relative date the finds discovered in them. If he formation processes of the site have left a sealed deposit then the stratigraphy is especially useful. The layers can provide a Terminus Post Quen (TPQ, earliest possible date for the deposit) and a Terminus Ante Quem (TAQ, latest possible date for the deposit). For example if there are three layers and the top and bottom layers have a coin in them providing an absolute date for the those layers, and a TPQ and TAQ for the middle layer.

Use wear analysis

Use wear analysis can be used to classify an artefact by discovering its purpose. For some artefacts, commonly flint and bone tools, scratches and traces are left from past activity. For example, “half an hour cutting cereals will leave a polish on a flint blade.” (Grant 2005). These tiny scratches can be analysed with optical microscopy and combined with information from experimental archaeology to provide a function for the artefact. Flint and bone were predominantly used in the Palaeolithic and so use wear analysis is especially useful for understanding the vast period of human existence as hunter gatherers. Use wear analysis can be greatly enhanced by the use of a scanning electron microscope. In addition, artefacts may appear similar to the naked eye but with use wear analysis can be prevented from being placed in a false typology by discovering what they were really used for.

Use wear analysis is most useful when the results are placed in their archaeological context. This allows for the significance of the artefact to the people who used it to be understood and for a wider interpretation to be made (Roberts et al., 2003). Use wear analysis can, “provide valuable insights into the economic, social and ideological dynamics of prehistoric groups” (Roberts 2003). This is a key benefit that the more narrowly focused scientific methods do not always allow for. By know what something was used for, rather than simply knowing what it is made of and when, gives meaning to the object. It is no longer only an artefacts, but a tool that is an extension of a person. By knowing what an artefacts is used for we know what the person who used it wanted to accomplish and how their mind solved the problem, and so we gain a glimpse inside their head. The activity and thought process can be recreated and understood, forming a real connection with the past.

In a study of socketed axes during the late bronze age Roberts et al (2003) explains various limitations of use wear analysis. One of the problems is that, “extensive levels of corrosion and post-deposition damage, usually ‘cleaning’ of the socketed axes by the finders, render micro-wear analysis impossible.” He also explains a major problem of interpreting the tiny scratches. Many axes were used for several activities during their lifetime, some causing more damage than others and it may be that different activities cause the same or variable patterns. In addition, the axes would have needed to be sharpened during their lifetime which would eradicate their previous scratches, resulting in the remaining marks being from the final uses of the axe. Regardless of these limitations, the qualitative data from use wear analysis is highly useful in understanding the past.

Optical microscopy

Optical microscopy has long been the preferred tool for analysing and classifying textiles. (Strand et al., 2010) Scanning electron microscopy can be used to supplement optical microscopy, but optical microscopy is still useful for basic analysis of textiles. Optical microscopy is also useful in analysing environmental samples so they can be categorized, and used to examine marks on materials to provide clues to their use (Grant 2005).


Dendrochronology is a method of dating is based on the counting of growth rings in trees (Scarre 2009). Each tree has a pattern of rings and each ring represents one year of growth. Trees of the same species and similar location, which have an overlapping pattern, also have an overlapping lifespan. This allows archaeologists to form chronologies. A limitation is that this remains a ‘floating chronology’ unless an absolute dating method can pin down the exact date of part of the chronology, in which case the entire chronology gains an absolute date. Another limitation of dendrochronology is that the year a tree was felled may be not be the same as the structure with which it is associated. For example, as explained by Scarre (2009), “wood was a precious commodity in the arid Southwest, and ancient people often reused construction timber when building houses. So a tree ring date might be considerable older than the structure in which it was discovered.” A further limitation of dendrochronology is that it requires a fairly large sample be effective, and wood rarely survives. Oxygen and moisture are bad for preservation because it allows microbial activity to destroy the wood. Strongly acidic or alkaline soil preserves wood. Despite its limitations, dendrochronology can date wood to beyond 8000BC in Europe and it will continue to become more useful as chronologies are developed further (Green 2002).


When older artefacts are dated using the earlier dating methods it results in there being ‘vague’ estimates that cover a big time period. “Prehistoric chronology in archaeological texts has usually been discussed on scales far removed from that of ordinary human lifetimes” (Scarre 2010). Modern methods are narrowing the dating down to a specific lifespan. However, the modern methods are not all encompassing, “Many kinds of archaeological material remain difficult to date since they are inherently unsuitable for the direct application of radiometric methods.”


In some cases the earlier methods of classification and dating are having their usefulness eroded by more modern techniques. As modern absolute dating methods become more versatile and affordable techniques like typology and seriation will be less important to archaeologists when it comes to dating and classifying artefacts.

In some cases however the modern techniques can be combined with the old by testing a sample of the earlier extensive system. In other cases the older method will continue to improve as the record is filled in, such as with dendrochronology.

Overall, the purpose of archaeology is not to fill a computer database with what we know, but to explain and enlighten about the way our ancestors lived so that we may better understand ourselves. Therefore the earlier techniques that require actually looking at the artefact as the original user would have done, and not a graph, will always be vital in archaeology.


Adams, W. (1998) Archaeological Classification: theory versus practice, Antiquity 62: 40-56 Grant, J and Gorin, S and Fleming, N. (2005) The Archaeology Coursebook (Oxon: Routledge)

Green, K. (2002) Archaeology: An Introduction (London: Routeledge)

Roberts, B and Ottaway, B. (2003) The use and significance of socketed axes during the late Bronze age, European Journal of Archaeology 6: 119

Scarre, C. (2009) The Human Past (London: Thames and Hudson)

Scarre, C. (2010) Rocks of Ages: Tempo and Time in Megalithic Monuments, European Journal of Archaeology 13: 175

Strand, E and Frei, K and Gleba, M and Mannering, U. (2010) Old texiles – New Possibilities, European Journal of Archaeology 13: 149


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