“Start at the Beginning, and When You Get to the End, Stop” – The Archaeology of Time

At the time of writing this blog post, we are only three days into 2019. I’ll be honest – I’ve experienced 25 years on this planet and I still make New Year’s resolutions. The usual ones, of course: exercise more, consume less sugar, etc. And, of course, these resolutions usually make it until mid-February before I completely ditch them and continue to eat chocolate bars every day without touching my running shoes. I know New Year’s resolutions are silly gimmicks, marketed by gyms and health apps to make lots of money come January 1st. But I have always liked to utilise the New Year as a time for restarting my daily routines, renewing goals – I mean, I have an entire year ahead of me with so many possibilities, right?

So in honour of the New Year, let’s look at how we measure time in archaeology.

An diagram of “typical” archaeological stratigraphy (Image Credit: Crossrail Ltd.)

There are many ways that archaeologists create chronologies, and we often combine several methods to get a better idea of what a site’s timeline was like. Possibly the easiest way to “see” time across a site’s archaeological record is to look at the cross-section of a trench during excavation. The stratigraphy of an archaeological site can usually be seen as a series of “layers”, almost like a cake…if the cake was made out of various soils, organic material, and artefacts. These layers provide us with a general ideal of the order in which materials were deposited – this includes both natural and anthropogenic materials. It may be easier to think of archaeological stratigraphy as a sort of “visual starting point” for further developing a chronology for the site (Harris 1989). In an ideal world, we could simply look at the layer on the bottom to determine the “beginning” of the site’s history…but of course, things are never that simple.

During post-excavation, there are numerous methods available to an archaeologist for further dating. Having a typology (read more on typologies here) of a certain artefact, such as pottery, can help an archaeologist get a general idea of what time period they are currently dealing with. Within archaeological science, there are a variety of lab-based methods for dating: radiocarbon, potassium-argon, uranium, etc.

Of course, these methodologies aren’t perfect, nor are they definite. In fact, archaeologists differentiate between absolute and relative chronologies. Absolute chronologies provide us with approximate dates, often from lab-based methods such as radiocarbon dating. On the other hand, relative chronologies (for example, using a typology to determine an approximate period of creation and use) can be used to determine general time periods using the relationship between a previously occupied site (and its material remains) and an overall culture (Fagan and Durrani 2016).

Additionally, there are many external factors that can affect the recovered context of a site, thereby complicating the timeline – for example, burrowing creatures may cause some artefacts to fall into the contexts of others. There have also been many cases of re-using older artefacts and spaces, which can complicate the timeline further (you can read more on recycling and re-using the past here).

Overall, however, archaeology has been a useful tool for conceptualising the beginnings of things – while we cannot establish with certainty the absolute start of agriculture or domestication, for example, we have been able to develop an approximation of how early humans were practising such concepts.

And let’s be real – time itself is a fascinating concept. While we have this sort of “standardised” method of calculating and measuring time today, we cannot truly account for past perspectives on time. Of course, we can find material evidence that may illustrate the physical act of “keeping time” in the past, but how did people in the past really experience time? Think about how quickly an hour can go by today, just by watching random videos on YouTube or Facebook on your smartphone. Remember how much longer an hour felt when we didn’t always have access to the Internet at all times, prior to smartphones and other such devices? What about someone in the past who has a completely different mindset to us – how did they experience an hour?

…honestly, I could probably prattle on for hours and hours about this (and how would you experience that??).

Anyway, hope you all had an easy transfer from 2018 to 2019 this past New Year. Here’s to another year of writing incoherent, rambling posts that you hopefully find entertaining at the very least. And thank you all for supporting and reading my work last year, too – hope to see you all back again at the end of 2019!


Fagan, B.M. and Durrani, N. (2016) In the Beginning: an Introduction to Archaeology. Routledge.

Harris, E.C. (1989) Principles of Archaeological Stratigraphy. Academic Press.