Absolute Dating in the
James K. Feathers
Construction of chronology in the Mississippi Delta has relied primarily on stratigraphy and ceramic cross-dating. Seriation was employed early on (Phillips et al. 2003 ), but once the basic sequence was worked out, the chronology was broken into a series of groupings called phases, extensionally defined by a diagnostic set of ceramics (Phillips 1970, Williams and Brain 1983). Radiocarbon dating and, rarely, some other ratio-scale chronometric methods, have been employed to complement phase construction, by anchoring the sequence in real time.
This chapter reviews the use of chronometric methods, particularly radiocarbon, in the Mississippi Delta. It evaluates radiocarbon from two perspectives, the limitations of the method itself and the framework in which radiocarbon dates have been interpreted. I make the argument that some temporal problems can be better addressed by other chronometric methods, particularly luminescence dating, and that archaeological research designs need to incorporate better the full range of methods available. While critical of radiocarbon, I do not dispute the important contributions it has made and will continue to make. It has been particularly useful at sites where a large suite of radiocarbon dates has identified clear temporal patterns, a good example being Poverty Point, where dozens of dates have constrained the time of the main occupation (Gibson 1987a, 1987b, 1994a). Radiocarbon has important strengths, not the least of which is high precision at relatively low analytical costs, and there is no doubt that radiocarbon in the foreseeable future will and should continue as the most widely used chronometric dating method in Southeast archaeology. The problem is that radiocarbon has been used to the near-exclusion of other methods, often uncritically, and even where other methods are more appropriate. Early applications of luminescence dating (to clay balls at Poverty Point [Huxtable et al. 1972]), for example, were never followed up by further work until very recently.