Law of superposition

The law of superposition is an axiom that forms one of the bases of the sciences of geology, archaeology, and other fields dealing with geological stratigraphy. It is a form of relative dating. In its plainest form, it states that in undeformed stratigraphic sequences, the oldest strata will be at the bottom of the sequence. This is important to stratigraphic dating, which assumes that the law of superposition holds true and that an object cannot be older than the materials of which it is composed.

Layer upon layer of rocks on north shore of Isfjord, Svalbard, Norway. Since there is no overturning, the rock at the bottom is older than the rock on the top by the Law of Superposition.


The law of superposition was first proposed in the late 17th century by the Danish scientist Nicolas Steno. In the English-language literature, the law was popularized by William "Strata" Smith, who used it to produce the first geologic map of Britain.[1] It is the first of Smith's laws.

Archaeological considerations

Superposition in archaeology and especially in stratification use during excavation is slightly different as the processes involved in laying down archaeological strata are somewhat different from geological processes. Man-made intrusions and activity in the archaeological record need not form chronologically from top to bottom or be deformed from the horizontal as natural strata are by equivalent processes. Some archaeological strata (often termed as contexts or layers) are created by undercutting previous strata. An example would be that the silt back-fill of an underground drain would form some time after the ground immediately above it. Other examples of non vertical superposition would be modifications to standing structures such as the creation of new doors and windows in a wall. Superposition in archaeology requires a degree of interpretation to correctly identify chronological sequences and in this sense superposition in archaeology is more dynamic and multi-dimensional.

See also


  1. ^ Patrick Wyse Jackson, The Chronologers' Quest: The Search for the Age of the Earth, Cambridge University Press, 2006 ISBN 1139457578, pp.127-8.

General sources

  • Hamblin, W.K. The Earth's Dynamic Systems: A Textbook in Physical Geology, by W. Kenneth Hamblin, BYU, Provo, UT, Illus. William L. Chesser, Dennis Tasa, (Burgess Publishing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota), c 1978, pg. 115, "The Principle of Superposition and Original Horizontality;" pg. 116: The Law of Faunal Succession, "The Principle of Crosscutting Relations;" pg 116-17: "The Principle of Inclusion," (as in the Steno discussion above).
  • Principles of Archaeological Stratigraphy. 40 figs. 1 pl. 136 pp. London & New York: Academic Press ISBN 0-12-326650-5
Bed (geology)

Beds are the layers of sedimentary rocks that are distinctly different from overlying and underlying subsequent beds of different sedimentary rocks. Layers of beds are called stratigraphy or strata. They are formed from sedimentary rocks being deposited on the Earth's solid surface over a long periods of time. The stratigraphy are layered in the same order that they were deposited, allowing a differentiation of which beds are younger and which ones are older (the Law of Superposition). The structure of a bed is determined by its bedding plane. Beds can be differentiated in various ways, including rock or mineral type and particle size. The term is generally applied to sedimentary strata, but may also be used for volcanic flows or ash layers.

In a quarry, bedding is a term used for a structure occurring in granite and similar massive rocks that allows them to split in well-defined planes horizontally or parallel to the land surface. Other kinds of beds are cross beds and graded beds. Cross beds are not layered horizontally and are formed by a combination of local deposition on the inclined surfaces of ripples or dunes, and local erosion. Graded beds shows a gradual change in grain or clast sizes from one side of the bed to the other. A normal grading is when there are bigger grain sizes on the older side while an inverse grading is when there are smaller grain sizes on the older side. By knowing the type of beds, geologists can determine the relative ages of the rocks.


Catopithecus is an early catarrhine fossil. It is known from more than 16 specimens of a single species, Catopithecus browni, found in the Jebel Qatrani Formation of the Fayum Province, Egypt. The Jebel Qatrani Formation has been divided into two main faunal zones based on the fact that the fauna found in the lower portion of the quarry appear to be more primitive than those found in the upper section. The upper zone has been dated to older than 31 ± 1 myr based on the dating of a basalt layer that lies immediately above the formation and Nicolas Steno’s Law of Superposition. The lower zone contains the late Eocene green shale unit called Locality-41 (L-41) in which all the specimens of Catopithecus browni have been found. The relative dating of L-41 based on paleomagnetic correlations places it at 36 Myr according to Simons et al (1999), but Seiffert (2006) suggests this should be revised to 34.8-33.9 Myr.


Chronostratigraphy is the branch of stratigraphy that studies the age of rock strata in relation to time.

The ultimate aim of chronostratigraphy is to arrange the sequence of deposition and the time of deposition of all rocks within a geological region, and eventually, the entire geologic record of the Earth.

The standard stratigraphic nomenclature is a chronostratigraphic system based on palaeontological intervals of time defined by recognised fossil assemblages (biostratigraphy). The aim of chronostratigraphy is to give a meaningful age date to these fossil assemblage intervals and interfaces.


Circa (from Latin, meaning 'around, about, roughly, approximately') – frequently abbreviated c., ca., or ca and less frequently circ. or cca. – signifies "approximately" in several European languages and as a loanword in English, usually in reference to a date. Circa is widely used in historical writing when the dates of events are not accurately known.

When used in date ranges, circa is applied before each approximate date, while dates without circa immediately preceding them are generally assumed to be known with certainty.


1732–1799: Both years are known precisely.

c. 1732 – 1799: The beginning year is approximate; the end year is known precisely.

1732 – c. 1799: The beginning year is known precisely ; the end year is approximate.

c. 1732 – c. 1799: Both years are approximate.

Era (geology)

A geologic era is a subdivision of geologic time that divides an eon into smaller units of time. The Phanerozoic Eon is divided into three such time frames: the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic (meaning "old life", "middle life" and "recent life") that represent the major stages in the macroscopic fossil record. These eras are separated by catastrophic extinction boundaries, the P-T boundary between the Paleozoic and the Mesozoic and the K-Pg boundary between the Mesozoic and the Cenozoic. There is evidence that catastrophic meteorite impacts played a role in demarcating the differences between the eras.

The Hadean, Archean and Proterozoic eons were as a whole formerly called the Precambrian. This covered the four billion years of Earth history prior to the appearance of hard-shelled animals. More recently, however, the Archean and Proterozoic eons have been subdivided into eras of their own.

Geologic eras are further subdivided into geologic periods, although the Archean eras have yet to be subdivided in this way.


Floruit (UK: , US: ), abbreviated fl. (or occasionally flor.), Latin for "he/she flourished", denotes a date or period during which a person was known to have been alive or active. In English, the word may also be used as a noun indicating the time when someone flourished.

Geologic Calendar

The Geologic Calendar is a scale in which the geological lifetime of the earth is mapped onto a calendrical year; that is to say, the day one of the earth took place on a geologic January 1 at precisely midnight, and today's date and time is December 31 at midnight. On this calendar, the inferred appearance of the first living single-celled organisms, prokaryotes, occurred on a geologic February 25 around 12:30pm to 1:07pm, dinosaurs first appeared on December 13, the first flower plants on December 22 and the first primates on December 28 at about 9:43pm. The first Anatomically modern humans did not arrive until around 11:48 p.m. on New Year's Eve, and all of human history since the end of the last ice-age occurred in the last 82.2 seconds before midnight of the new year.

Geologic record

The geologic record in stratigraphy, paleontology and other natural sciences refers to the entirety of the layers of rock strata — deposits laid down by volcanism or by deposition of sediment derived from weathering detritus (clays, sands etc.) including all its fossil content and the information it yields about the history of the Earth: its past climate, geography, geology and the evolution of life on its surface. According to the law of superposition, sedimentary and volcanic rock layers are deposited on top of each other. They harden over time to become a solidified (competent) rock column, that may be intruded by igneous rocks and disrupted by tectonic events.

Geological formation

A formation or geological formation is the fundamental unit of lithostratigraphy. A formation consists of a certain amount of rock strata that have a comparable lithology, facies or other similar properties. Formations are not defined by the thickness of their rock strata; therefore the thickness of different formations can vary widely.

The concept of formally defined layers or strata is central to the geologic discipline of stratigraphy. Groups of strata are divided into formations, which are divided into members.

Geological history of Mars

The geological history of Mars employs observations, indirect and direct measurements, and various inference techniques to estimate the physical evolution of Mars. Methods dating back to 17th century techniques developed by Nicholas Steno, including the so-called law of superposition and stratigraphy, used to estimate the geological histories of Earth and the Moon, are being actively applied to the data available from several Martian observational and measurement resources. These include the landers, orbiting platforms, Earth-based observations, and Martian meteorites.

Observations of the surfaces of many Solar System bodies reveal important clues about their evolution. For example, a lava flow that spreads out and fills a large impact crater is likely to be younger than the crater. On the other hand, a small crater on top of the same lava flow is likely to be younger than both the lava and the larger crater since it can be surmised to have been the product of a later, unobserved, geological event. This principle, called the law of superposition, and other principles of stratigraphy, first formulated by Nicholas Steno in the 17th century, allowed geologists of the 19th century to divide the history of the Earth into the familiar eras of Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic. The same methodology was later applied to the Moon and then to Mars.

Another stratigraphic principle used on planets where impact craters are well preserved is that of crater number density. The number of craters greater than a given size per unit surface area (usually million km2) provides a relative age for that surface. Heavily cratered surfaces are old, and sparsely cratered surfaces are young. Old surfaces have a lot of big craters, and young surfaces have mostly small craters or none at all.

These stratigraphic concepts form the basis for the Martian geologic timescale.

Geological period

A geological period is one of the several subdivisions of geologic time enabling cross-referencing of rocks and geologic events from place to place.

These periods form elements of a hierarchy of divisions into which geologists have split the Earth's history.

Eons and eras are larger subdivisions than periods while periods themselves may be divided into epochs and ages.

The rocks formed during a period belong to a stratigraphic unit called a system.

Harris matrix

The Harris matrix is a tool used to depict the temporal succession of archaeological contexts and thus the sequence of depositions and surfaces on a 'dry land' archaeological site, otherwise called a 'stratigraphic sequence'. The matrix reflects the relative position and stratigraphic contacts of observable stratigraphic units, or contexts. The Matrix was developed in 1973 in Winchester, England, by Dr. Edward C. Harris.

The concept of creating seriation diagrams of archaeological strata based on the physical relationship between strata had had some currency in Winchester and other urban centres in England prior to Harris's formalisation. One of the results of Harris's work, however, was the realisation that sites had to be excavated stratigraphically, in the reverse order to that in which they were created, without the use of arbitrary measures of stratification such as spits or planums. In his Principles of archaeological stratigraphy Harris first proposed the need for each unit of stratification to have its own graphic representation, usually in the form of a measured plan. In articulating the laws of archaeological stratigraphy and developing a system in which to demonstrate simply and graphically the sequence of deposition or truncation on a site, Harris, it has been argued, has followed in the footsteps of the truly great stratigraphic archaeologists such as Mortimer Wheeler, without necessarily being a great excavator himself.

Harris's work was a vital precursor to the development of single context planning by the Museum of London and also the development of land use diagrams, all facets of a suite of archaeological recording tools and techniques developed in the UK which allow in-depth analysis of complex archaeological data sets, usually from urban excavations.


An outcrop or rocky outcrop is a visible exposure of bedrock or ancient superficial deposits on the surface of the Earth.

Principle of faunal succession

The principle of faunal succession, also known as the law of faunal succession, is based on the observation that sedimentary rock strata contain fossilized flora and fauna, and that these fossils succeed each other vertically in a specific, reliable order that can be identified over wide horizontal distances. A fossilized Neanderthal bone will never be found in the same stratum as a fossilized Megalosaurus, for example, because neanderthals and megalosaurs lived during different geological periods, separated by many millions of years. This allows for strata to be identified and dated by the fossils found within.

This principle, which received its name from the English geologist William Smith, is of great importance in determining the relative age of rocks and strata. The fossil content of rocks together with the law of superposition helps to determine the time sequence in which sedimentary rocks were laid down.

Evolution explains the observed faunal and floral succession preserved in rocks. Faunal succession was documented by Smith in England during the first decade of the 19th century, and concurrently in France by Cuvier (with the assistance of the mineralogist Alexandre Brongniart). Archaic biological features and organisms are succeeded in the fossil record by more modern versions. For instance, paleontologists investigating the evolution of birds predicted that feathers would first be seen in primitive forms on flightless predecessor organisms such as feathered dinosaurs. This is precisely what has been discovered in the fossil record: simple feathers, incapable of supporting flight, are succeeded by increasingly large and complex feathers.In practice, the most useful diagnostic species are those with the fastest rate of species turnover and the widest distribution; their study is termed biostratigraphy, the science of dating rocks by using the fossils contained within them. In Cenozoic strata, fossilized tests of foraminifera are often used to determine faunal succession on a refined scale, each biostratigraphic unit (biozone) being a geological stratum that is defined on the basis of its characteristic fossil taxa. An outline microfaunal zonal scheme based on both foraminifera and ostracoda was compiled by M. B. Hart (1972).

Simply, the earlier fossil life forms are simpler than more recent forms, and more recent forms are most similar to existing forms (principle of faunal succession).

Relative dating

Relative dating is the science of determining the relative order of past events (i.e., the age of an object in comparison to another), without necessarily determining their absolute age (i.e. estimated age). In geology, rock or superficial deposits, fossils and lithologies can be used to correlate one stratigraphic column with another. Prior to the discovery of radiometric dating in the early 20th century, which provided a means of absolute dating, archaeologists and geologists used relative dating to determine ages of materials. Though relative dating can only determine the sequential order in which a series of events occurred, not when they occurred, it remains a useful technique. Relative dating by biostratigraphy is the preferred method in paleontology and is, in some respects, more accurate. The Law of Superposition, which states that older layers will be deeper in a site than more recent layers, was the summary outcome of 'relative dating' as observed in geology from the 17th century to the early 20th century.


Stratigraphy is a branch of geology concerned with the study of rock layers (strata) and layering (stratification). It is primarily used in the study of sedimentary and layered volcanic rocks.

Stratigraphy has two related subfields: lithostratigraphy (lithologic stratigraphy) and biostratigraphy (biologic stratigraphy).


A stratotype or type section is a geological term that names the physical location or outcrop of a particular reference exposure of a stratigraphic sequence or stratigraphic boundary. If the stratigraphic unit is layered, it is called a stratotype, whereas the standard of reference for unlayered rocks is the type locality.


In geology and related fields, a stratum (plural: strata) is a layer of sedimentary rock or soil, or igneous rock that were formed at the Earth's surface, with internally consistent characteristics that distinguish it from other layers. The "stratum" is the fundamental unit in a stratigraphic column and forms the basis of the study of stratigraphy.

Key topics
Astronomic time
Geologic time
Genetic methods
Linguistic methods
Related topics
Geologic principles and processes
Stratigraphic principles
Petrologic principles
Geomorphologic processes
Sediment transport

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