In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Tree-Ring Dating

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Methods
  • Archaeological Tree-Ring Date Interpretation
  • The History of Archaeological Tree-Ring Dating
  • Archaeology and Environmental Syntheses
  • Archaeological Case Studies from the American Southwest
  • Timber Sourcing Studies in Chaco Canyon National Historic Park, New Mexico, USA
  • Archaeological Case Studies in the Eastern, Midwestern, and Southeastern United States
  • Archaeological Case Studies in Western Europe
  • Archaeological Case Studies in Other Regions
  • Radiocarbon Calibration
  • Curation of Samples and Data
  • Case Studies Using Big Dendrochronological Datasets
  • Digital Sources
  • Reflective Summaries and Overviews

Anthropology Tree-Ring Dating
by
Stephen Nash
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0226

Introduction

Dendrochronology, the study of tree-time, is a multidisciplinary science providing chronometric, environmental, behavioral, and other data to scholars of all kinds, as well as to curious members of the general public. For archaeologists, the most important result of dendrochronological analysis is the assignment of solar calendar dates to the growth rings of trees. The fundamental principle of dendrochronology is crossdating, or the systematic analytical process that matches ring-width variations within and between trees, usually of the same species, and which are growing in close proximity. Crossdating begins with the analysis of cores or cross-sections from living trees for which the calendar-year date of the outside ring is known and from which calendar year dates for interior rings may then be inferred. Crossdating ends with the construction of a master tree-ring chronology in which all anomalous (i.e., missing, double, or otherwise problematic) rings have been identified and accounted for, and Common Era calendar dates have been accurately assigned to all growth rings present in the chronology. Once a master chronology has been built, ring sequences from archaeological specimens may then be compared to that of the master chronology to then (hopefully) obtain a date. Unfortunately, not all tree-ring specimens yield dates. Some species cannot be crossdated; some samples don’t have enough growth rings present to provide secure dating, for example. Tree-ring dating developed in the early 20th century in the American Southwest, where astronomer Andrew Ellicott Douglass of the University of Arizona sought a terrestrial record of sunspot cycles. After nearly three decades’ work, he successfully dated archaeological specimens for the first time in 1929. Since then, dendrochronologists have dated tens of thousands of individual samples from thousands of archaeological sites in the American Southwest, the American Southeast, all over northern Europe, and, in a small number of cases, in Latin America and Asia. Today, dendrochronology enjoys an astonishing array of worldwide applications relevant to archaeology and anthropology, including climatology, forest ecology, architectural analysis, volcanology, geomorphology, art history, history, and many others. This bibliography covers published resources relating the method, theory, techniques, and history of dendrochronology, and offers a sampling of important archaeological, art-historical, historical, and other case studies from around the world.

General Overviews

Dendrochronology is a highly specialized science with a comparatively small number of professional practitioners. By extension, there is a comparatively small number of universities offering coursework in the discipline. As a result, there has never been a large market for textbook-length overviews of the subject, though several have been published over the years. Baillie 1982 offers the first textbook-style treatment in Europe; Baillie 1995 offers an update with more extensive examination of the complex efforts to date volcanic eruptions, panel paintings, and other art-historical artifacts in that part of the world. Schweingruber 1988 offers a more detailed overview of the topic, with an emphasis on methods from a European perspective. Speer 2010 offers the most comprehensive overview available from a North American perspective.

  • Baillie, M. G. L. 1982. Tree-ring dating and archaeology. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    A short but comprehensive introductory text on oak tree-ring dating methods, techniques, and theory as practiced in northwestern Europe, with emphasis on Ireland and the British Isles. Includes discussions of tree-ring dating with respect to radiocarbon calibration, art-historical dating, and dendroclimatology, among others subjects.

  • Baillie, M. G. L. 1995. A slice through time: Dendrochronology and precision dating. London: B.T.S. Batsford.

    E-mail Citation »

    A successor volume to Baillie 1982, this introductory text offers updated discussions of tree-ring dating method, theory, and applications in Europe and beyond. The volume places even greater emphasis on case studies related to art history and volcanic eruptions (particularly Santorini), as well as presenting new sections on the dating of archaeological phenomena in China and Egypt.

  • Schweingruber, Fritz Hans. 1988. Tree rings: Basics and applications of dendrochronology. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-009-1273-1E-mail Citation »

    The first comprehensive textbook on dendrochronology, with an emphasis on wood anatomy, tree growth, and tree-ring dating applications, and focusing on research in Europe. Lavishly illustrated, the volume offers many case studies relevant to archaeologists and anthropologists, including the dating of New Stone Age and Bronze Age settlements in Switzerland; historic buildings in Germany, Greece, and Turkey; pre-Columbian settlements in the American Southwest, art-historical artifacts in Europe, etc.

  • Speer, James H. 2010. Fundamentals of tree-ring research. Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    The most comprehensive overview textbook on the method, theory, history, and application of tree-ring analysis to a wide range of disciplines, particularly as practiced in North America.

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