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In archaeology, seriation is a relative dating method in which assemblages or artifacts from numerous sites, in the same culture, are placed in chronological order.Where absolute dating methods, such as carbon dating, cannot be applied, archaeologists have to use relative dating methods to date archaeological finds and features.
It can be used to date stone tools, pottery fragments, and other artifacts.
In Europe, it has been used frequently to reconstruct the chronological sequence of graves in a cemetery (e.g.
Jørgensen 1992; Two different variants of seriation have been applied: contextual seriation and frequency seriation (Renfrew and Bahn 1996, pp. Whereas contextual seriation is based on the presence or absence of a design style, frequency seriation relies on measuring the proportional abundance or frequency of a design style.
Contextual seriation is often used for reconstructing the chronological sequence of graves as only the presence or absence of a design style or type is important.
Frequency seriation is applied in case of large quantities of objects belonging to the same style.
An example are assemblages of pottery sherds each including roughly the same range of types though in different proportions.
Flinders Petrie excavated at Diospolis Parva in Egypt in the late nineteenth century.
He found that the graves he was uncovering contained no evidence of their dates and their discrete nature meant that a sequence could not be constructed through their stratigraphy. The assumption that design styles follow a bell curve of popularity – starting slowly, growing to a peak and then dying away as another style becomes popular – provides the basis for frequency seriation.
Petrie listed the contents of each grave on a strip of cardboard and swapped the papers around until he arrived at a sequence he was satisfied with. It also assumes that design popularity will be broadly similar from site to site within the same culture.
He reasoned that the most accurate sequence would be the one where concentrations of certain design styles had the shortest duration across the sequence of papers (Renfrew and Bahn 1996, p. In addition, it is vital that the lifespans of the different design styles overlap. to form groups of objects belonging to the same design style is by no means trivial.
Following these rules, an assemblage of objects can be placed into sequence so that sites with the most similar proportions of certain styles are always together (Lock 2003, p. Creating a typology frequently is the basis of a seriation.
Errors in typology result in errors in seriation: For example, if a certain design style had two peaks in popularity (bimodal distribution), this design style is not appropriate for seriation and its inclusion in the analysis may result in strange results.