Dating old tools

18 May

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Something had pounded one rock against another in the same place over and over and over … The archaeologists who study lithic technologies — “stone tools” to us lay primates — are used to making these kinds of determinations.

For generations they’ve been sorting out what is a tool, what isn’t, and what those tools mean, and they’ve been doing it largely by sight, by context of the objects and the site where they were found, and by experience. They use dating techniques and look for evidence of how tools were being used. I can’t tell you based on measurements, and my opinion shouldn’t count for science.” Archaeological analysis always involves some amount of informed interpretation, and not all archaeologists are this skeptical of the traditional methodology.

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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Originally made entirely of single piece of iron that was folded around a handle-shaped pattern, axes incorporated steel wedges into their heads in the 1700s.

These methods — some of which are still used today — provide only an approximate spot within a previously established sequence: Think of it as ordering rather than dating.

Biostratigraphy: One of the first and most basic scientific dating methods is also one of the easiest to understand.

And while the exact implement of destruction is not definitively known, a young George Washington held either an axe or a hatchet in his hand when he famously cut down the family cherry tree.

The most familiar type of axe (also correctly spelled “ax”) is the felling axe, whose long, curved handle increases its impact.