In archaeological terminology, there are two categories of dating methods: absolute and relative.
Absolute dating utilizes one or more of a variety of chronometric techniques to produce a computed numerical age, typically with a standard error.
Different researchers have applied a variety of absolute dating methods directly to petroglyphs or to sediments covering them, including AMS (accelerator mass spectrometry) radiocarbon, cation ratio, amino acid racemization, OSL (optically stimulated luminescence), lichenometry, micro-erosion and micro-stratification analysis of patina. These techniques have yielded mixed results in terms of reliability and feasibility, but, in any case, none has been applied to date in Saudi Arabia.
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To progress, it is essential to apply the second type, or relative, dating.
The term refers to the fact that an approximate date can be inferred by comparison with something else of known age.
In this case, a rock art panel may be judged to be younger, older or basically contemporaneous with another petroglyph, a site, an artifact, or other evidence of known antiquity.
Relative dating, although somewhat less satisfying than absolute dating in terms of precision, is considerably more successful for petroglyphs.
Sometimes the proximity of a campsite or settlement that is dated directly by absolute dating methods is considered helpful for determining the age of an apparently associated petroglyph panel, but caution must be exercised, since it does not always mean that the site’s inhabitants were the artists who created the art.
Often there are multiple sites of varying ages nearby and the petroglyph itself may be a palimpsest of images created through the ages.On rare occasion, archaeological deposits can accumulate up against a petroglyph panel, concealing part or all of the art.Another way that precise dating can be achieved is if the artist records the actual date of his or her creation, the name of a leader of known reign, or a distinctive historical event, like the inscription shown in the previous chapter about King Yousif Assar Yathar’s invasion of the Najran region in 518 CE.Then, however, it must be clear that the artist is referring to his or her own time, and not providing historical commentary.Given the current status of direct chronometric dating methods for Arabian petroglyphs, it is rare that the precise age of a rock art panel can be determined.However, all is not lost, and it is possible to establish a temporal sequence that can be quite edifying.