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Seriation
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Seriation

Seriation is a method of dating objects in the field of archaeology.

Before scientific methods such as carbon dating were introduced, dating archaeological finds and features was a difficult task. Typological sequencing had been pioneered by the Swede Oscar Montelius in the nineteenth century who created relative chronologies for prehistoric European tools. Assuming that changes in artefact design are incremental, that different cultures would produce different designs and that neighbouring cultures would influence one another, Montelius constructed a model of relative dating and the flow of cultural influence which matched the evidence and the contemporary theoretical approach of cultural history. Once a definitive date has been ascribed to one or two artefacts in a sequence, then estimates can be made as to the dates of the others. This method is still widely used though it requires a wide range of design types in appreciable numbers to work best.

Towards the end on the nineteenth century William Flinders Petrie was excavating at Diospolis Parva in Egypt. 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. Petrie listed the contents of each grave on pieces of paper and swapped the papers around until he arrived at a sequence he was satisfied with. 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.

Later work using scientific methods has largely supported the effectiveness of Petrie's seriation method for producing correct sequences.

Assuming 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. It also assumes that design popularity will be broadly similar from site to site within the same culture. 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.