Luminescence dating laboratory

Established in Cheltenham in 1996, the University of Gloucestershire’s Luminescence dating laboratory draws on the dosimetric properties of sedimentary quartz and feldspar to establish the chronology of past environmental change and human evolution, dispersal and occupation.

​​​​​​​​​​Basic principles

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​The utility of luminescence dating lies in its potential to directly, accurately and precisely date events where most other chronometric methods falter owing to limitations in datable material, age range and/or calibration.

Like any absolute dating technique, it is premised upon two basic properties; the existence of a time-dependent signal and knowledge of that signal’s size at the time of the event to be dated.

 

In luminescence dating, the signal accumulates within minerals over time as a function of low level, natural radiation exposure. The datable event is that point in time when the signal was reset to zero and started to grow again. That zeroing occurs through exposure to sunlight and/or raised temperature with the datable event marked by the removal of these agents, through burial for example. The signal is essentially a dosimeter, converting to a chronometer by estimating the rate of dose absorption.

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Datable contexts

The time dependent signal is sourced from naturally ubiquitous silt or sand sized mineral grains; principally quartz or feldspar. Age estimates can be provided for:

  • Sediment deposition
  • Pottery and ceramic production
  • Brick and mortar-based construction
  • Heating of flint and stones

Accuracy, precision & range

​There is now a substantial body of independent evidence that has verified the accuracy of luminescence dating, and there exist a number of intrinsic measures by which to establish the reliability of ages when corroborative data is absent. Precision is limited by systematic errors to a maximum of 5%; for certain periods this is comparable if not superior to that of other chronometric methods, including radiocarbon. The datable range is considerable, from sub-decadal to in excess of 500,000 years.

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