Dating 101: The Use of Linguistic Archaeology in Relative Dating

Our [hopeful] goal by the end of four years

Despite the incredible academic achievements of MIT students, we possess an unfortunate reputation for struggling in social situations. Although my fellow students and I would unquestionably benefit from a thorough guide on romantic dating, this blog post does not deliver that necessity. Instead, I will discuss various methods of dating—in archaeology—and hone in on the use of linguistic analysis as a valuable and imperative tool for dating.

A more accurate depiction of our futures

There are two main categories of archaeological dating methods: absolute and relative. In absolute dating, we derive a standalone timeframe for an object or event. For instance, in radiocarbon dating, experts measure the presence of carbon-14 in ancient artifacts to estimate their age.1 Scientists can also date artifacts by calculating the impact of radioactive elements within the soil on buried artifacts, a method known as radiation damage. With dendrochronology, the study of analyzing tree ring counts and widths, archaeologists can create a natural calendar of historical events.2

Differing spaces between rings reveals significant historical events, such as droughts.

Relative dating, on the other hand, determines the time-sequenced order of events and evidence. In stratigraphy, archaeologists analyze soil layers to create a chronological sequence of human activity. For example, the Tell of Hazor in Israel is an artificial hill produced by 21 separate, human-created strata, each of which documents a unique societal occupation.3 Linguistic archaeology is the use of language and epigraphy—the study of ancient writing—to sequence events and artifacts. My interest was piqued by linguistical analysis, and I was curious to learn how archaeologists could determine relative dates without any physical evidence. Enraptured by the vast expanse of linguistic evidence, for my final project, I focused on the applications of linguistics in archaeological dating.

Image result for tell of hazor

Although the excavation of Hazor is in progress, many interesting layers of human activity have been uncovered.

Before delving into specific uses of linguistics, let’s first explore the study of language. There are three main categories of linguistics:

Linguistic typology studies the variation of human languages in terms of their structure. For instance, most languages of the Causcasus region have a high consonant count. In addition, some languages are tonal, such as Mandarin. Typologists can compare and group different languages by structure.4

Depiction of the tonal nature of Mandarin

Areal linguistics focuses on the geographical distribution of languages, which can be used to trace migrations. In Southern Africa, the Zulu language contains many “clicking” sounds that are traditional to the Khosian language, which is spoken on the opposite coast. 5 The similarity implies a Khosian presence in the Zulu region well before written records even began.


Zulu and Khosian are spoken on opposite coasts, yet share key similarities.

Genetic linguistics traces the ancestry and evolution of languages to infer prior societal change. 6 For example, the Romance languages stem from Latin, indicating a common structural ancestor—the Roman Empire.


Ancestry of the Romance languages, stemming from Latin.

Now that we have a grasp on the varieties of linguistics, let’s explore some case studies to see how scholars have approached the use of linguistics in dating.


Limestone ostracon with Coptic writing from Ancient Egypt

This artifact is a limestone ostracon with Coptic inscriptions on both sides.7 Coptic is an ancient Egyptian language, originating in the 2nd century AD, and was primarily used by Christians. After Muslims conquered Egypt in the 7th century, Arabic took over and Coptic fell out of fashion. With the history of Coptic, we can corroborate the estimated absolute date of this ostracon: 580 AD.8


Shared cognate percentages within word lists of Polynesian languages

Not all linguistic evidence is physical, however. This table illustrates data from various languages spoken in Polynesia, with the aim of determining the chronological settlement of the various islands. 9 The counts represent the percentages of cognates that TON (Tongan) and SAM (Samoan) share with other Polynesian languages. Viewing each pair of adjacent columns, it is evident that Tongan shares less cognates with all other Polynesian languages overall, and therefore, independently settled apart from the rest of the Polynesian islands first.


Number of word pairs with uniquely-shared, closely-related meanings in Polynesian languages

This table depicts the number of words with same or closely related meanings uniquely shared between various pairs of Polynesian languages.10 In particular, looking at the greater number of pairs Marquesan and Hawaiian share than Hawaiian and Tahitian, we can predict that the Hawaiian settlement has closer ties to Marquesan societies. This hypothesis was later proven to be true through other archaeological methodologies.

Although it is indisputable that linguistic archaeology has made valuable gains and contributions, as with any methodology, there are benefits and challenges to using linguistics for dating.

One notable benefit of analyzing languages is that they often reveal cultural information along with a time scale, a factor that absolute dating methods cannot derive. They also increase the scale of evidence available, as languages contain immense amounts of information, both in vocabulary and in grammar. In addition, language is a form of expression that is accessible by the poor and rich alike. For instance, graffiti from Pompeii, shown below, proved that Vesuvius did not erupt in the summer, due to the “Nov” included in the etched message. The eruption date was a hotly debated topic among experts, and the key evidence was provided by a nameless, common person.11


Graffiti from Pompeii proving that Vesuvius did not erupt until November

However, there are also many challenges to linguistic analysis. Understandably, it is incredibly difficult to comprehend a completely foreign language without any guidelines or rules. In addition, linguistic analysis relies on changes in language over time and area, which is impossible to analyze without significant control or comparison data. Finally, written evidence is not always readily available, especially for many oral cultures.

Personally, I support the use of linguistics as a vital supplement in archaeology, but not as a definitive dating source. Language is so intrinsic to the human experience that it seems illogical to not analyze it. To truly understand our ancestors, we must listen to their words. After all, human nature has not changed throughout history, and by listening to our forefathers, we not only discern life in the past, but also uncover reflections of ourselves.

Suggested Reading

Harden, Donald. The Phoenicians. New York: Frederick A. Praeger Inc., 1962.

Pawley, Andrew. “Roger Green, 1932–2009: Linguistic Archaeologist.” Oceanic Linguistics 49, no. 1 (2010): 288-297.

Stambaugh, John E. The Ancient Roman City. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.


1. McNeill, William H. Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History, 2nd ed., s.v. “Dating Methods, Archeological and Historical.” Great Barrington: Berkshire Publishing Group, 2016, Online.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Meyers, Eric M. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archeology in the Near East, 1st ed., s.v. “Language, Classification of.” Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, Online.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Bard, Kathryn A. An Introduction to the Archeology of Ancient Egypt. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2008, 28.

8. Ibid.

9. Green, Roger. “Linguistic subgrouping within Polynesia: the implications for prehistoric settlement.” The Journal of the Polynesian Society 75, no. 1 (1966): 6-38.

10. Ibid.

11. “New Thoughts on Pompeii’s Last Day.” Archaeology, October 16, 2018. Accessed December 10, 2018. Online.

(Note: Online sources can be accessed by clicking on the citation)

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