Unlike people, you can’t really guess the age of a rock from looking at it.
Yet, you’ve heard the news: Earth is 4.6 billion years old. That corn cob found in an ancient Native American fire pit is 1,000 years old. Geologic age dating—assigning an age to materials—is an entire discipline of its own.
In a way this field, called geochronology, is some of the purest detective work earth scientists do.
Here is an easy-to understand analogy for your students: relative age dating is like saying that your grandfather is older than you.
Absolute age dating is like saying you are 15 years old and your grandfather is 77 years old.
To determine the relative age of different rocks, geologists start with the assumption that unless something has happened, in a sequence of sedimentary rock layers, the newer rock layers will be on top of older ones. This rule is common sense, but it serves as a powerful reference point.
Geologists draw on it and other basic principles ( to determine the relative ages of rocks or features such as faults.
Relative age dating also means paying attention to crosscutting relationships.
Say for example that a volcanic dike, or a fault, cuts across several sedimentary layers, or maybe through another volcanic rock type.
Pretty obvious that the dike came after the rocks it cuts through, right?
With absolute age dating, you get a real age in actual years.
It’s based either on fossils which are recognized to represent a particular interval of time, or on radioactive decay of specific isotopes. Based on the Rule of Superposition, certain organisms clearly lived before others, during certain geologic times.
After all, a dinosaur wouldn’t be caught dead next to a trilobite.
The narrower a range of time that an animal lived, the better it is as an index of a specific time.