A new dating method finally is allowing archaeologists to incorporate rock paintings -- some of the most mysterious and personalized remnants of ancient cultures -- into the tapestry of evidence used to study life in prehistoric times. That's the conclusion of a new report in the American Chemical Society's Analytical Chemistry, a semi-monthly journal.

In the study, titled Radiocarbon Dating of Ancient Rock Paintings, Texas A&M University chemist Dr. Marvin W. Rowe points out that rock paintings, or pictographs, are among the most difficult archaeological artifacts to date. They lack the high levels of organic material needed to assess a pictograph's age using radiocarbon dating, the standard archaeological technique for more than a half-century. Rowe describes a new, highly sensitive dating method, called accelerator mass spectrometry, that requires only 0.05 milligrams of carbon (the weight of 50 specks of dust). That's much less than the several grams of carbon needed with radiocarbon dating.

The research included analyzing pictographs from numerous countries over a span of 15 years. According to Rowe, it validates the method and allows rock painting to join bones, pottery and other artifacts that tell secrets of ancient societies.

"Because of the prior lack of methods for dating rock art, archaeologists had almost completely ignored it before the 1990s," he explained. "But with the ability to obtain reliable radiocarbon dates on pictographs, archaeologists have now begun to incorporate rock art into a broader study that includes other cultural remains."

The American Chemical Society (ACS) Weekly PressPac is a produced by the ACS Office of Public Affairs. It features news from ACS' 34 peer-reviewed journals and Chemical & Engineering News.


Contact: Dr. Marvin W. Rowe, (974) 423-0018 or marvin.rowe@qatar.tamu.edu

Simpson John

  • Dr. Marvin W. Rowe

  • The cover of the current issue of Analytical Chemistry (March 2009: Vol. 81, Iss. 5) features a piece of rock art from Texas called the Electric Jesus or the Ecstatic Shaman. A new dating method allows archaeologists to incorporate rock art -- mysterious and personal remnants of ancient cultures -- into the studies of prehistoric life. (Credit: The American Chemical Society.)

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