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High Definition Chronologies

Graduate School, Arts at Aarhus University


Estimating age is crucial for understanding the past. If we want to ascertain the chronological sequence of events and activities, the flow of objects, the emergence of networks, or the life cycles of settlements, we have to attribute dates to objects and contexts.

Absolute dating methods developed over the last decades are continually being improved are becoming increasingly more refined in their precision and accuracy. The application of these dating methods allows archaeologists and historians to develop precise narratives of the past, as well as to review and re-evaluate chronologies narratives afresh.

More recently, it has become more common to combine different dating methods and information from multiple contexts or objects, to advance increasingly more refined dating sequences and narratives. At the forefront of this has been the adoption of Bayesian statistics, which has proved to be an extremely powerful tool combining archaeological information (i.e. stratigraphic) with calibrated radiocarbon dating. Specifically, it uses archaeological data to improve the probability estimates of carbon-14 dates, creating ‘modelled’ dates with narrower date ranges that can often be a significant improvement on regular ‘calibrated’ dates.

The use of Bayesian methods has emphasised the importance and complementary nature of field archaeology and contextual information, without which such modelling would not be possible. Hence it is mandatory not only to focus on scientific methods as key to high definition chronology, but also to reflect upon and to further improve the accuracy of traditional archaeological dating methods like seriation and relative dating, and in general, the ability to understand archaeological contexts and stratigraphy.


The course will offer research-based teaching on the concepts and methods of high definition chronology in archaeology. The aims are:

  • To understand important scientific dating methods. The course will equip students with basic conceptual and analytical tools to assess the nature, significance and application of absolute dating techniques;
  • To understand traditional archaeological dating methods like seriation, sequential ordering of artefacts, and stratigraphy, including the importance of relative dating;
  • To understand and to assess the use of Bayesian statistics in the establishing of high definition chronologies;
  • To identify developments in dating methods, research issues and problems and research questions inherent to the application of the various dating methods, including potential limitations and constraints;
  • To appreciate the interdependency between scientific and traditional archaeological dating methods, emphasising the importance of accurate context recording and sampling (preselection) to construct high definition chronologies.

The course has a focus on key questions of contemporary archaeological, historical, and material science studies: the establishment of precise chronologies.


Module 1: Absolute methods of dating

The first module will offer an expert introduction and overview on the principles, limitations, challenges and use of absolute dating methods, which will include radiocarbon dating, optical stimulated luminescence, dendrochronology and tephrochronology. How are these methods used to determine the age of contexts and objects? What are their strengths and limitations? Which method(s) are appropriate?

Module 2: Traditional archaeological dating

The second module will cover in detail the complexities of traditional archaeological approaches to establishing chronology. This will include the contextual analysis of finds, such as pottery and coins, and the use of objects in seriation and typological dating. At many sites, it is possible to determine precise chronologies based on the contextual interpretation of finds. We will explore the relations between these issues and the similar problems encountered in relation to the contextual interpretation of objects dated by means of scientific methods. This module will also reflect on the importance of relative dating and how traditional archaeological approaches are entangled with scientific dating methods.

Module 3: Bayesian methods

This module will provide a detailed introduction to the concept of Bayesian methods in archaeological dating. It will focus on the interaction between radiocarbon dating and other sources of dating information, specifically how this can be combined using Bayesian statistics to improve calibrated radiocarbon dates and deliver more precise modelled dates. This module will illustrate the power of Bayesian methods through case-studies where it has been successfully implemented to revitalise and sometimes redefine chronologies.

Module 4: High definition chronologies and history

Using a selection of case-studies, this module will demonstrate how high definition chronologies are constructed and how they are used to further archaeological interpretation and narratives of particular sites and events. It will provide an overview of dating methods in practice, focusing on the importance of creating, using and interpreting chronology.

Target group:

PhD level

Archaeologists, Historians, Geosciences




The format of the course will be a mixture of lectures, exercises and workshops. Attendees will be expected to participate actively and may be asked to deliver short presentations. Exercises will involve group discussion, Q and A sessions or quizzes, as well as short presentations. Students will be expected to deliver a short 2 page case study (written) prior the course commencing, which will then be presented to the group during the workshop sessions.




Course co-ordinators

Thomas Birch (

Michael Blömer (

Teaching staff:

Heide Wrobel Nørgaard (AU,

Mads Bakken Thastrup (MoMu/AU,

Jan-Pieter Buylaert (AU,

Aoife Daly (Copenhagen,

Jesper Olsen (AU,


Dates and time:

23rd and 24th November 2017


Centre for Urban Network Evolutions (UrbNet)

Aarhus University, School of Culture and Society

Moesgård Allé 20

8270 Højbjerg


Application / registration:

Please apply for a spot on the course via no later than16th November 2017.


Course dates
23 November 2017 - 24 November 2017
Heide Wrobel Nørgaard and others
Campus Moesgård
Moesgård Allé 20
3 points

If you have any questions about this site, please contact Danske Universiteter via mail: dkuni @