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Durham University

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Luminescence Dating Techniques

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.


The Luminescence Dating and Dosimetry Laboratory is developing new techniques for application to the dating of artefacts and deposits from sites that range widely in terms of chronological period, geographic location and material type. Recent work as focused on optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) techniques, in particular a novel experimental approach to the measurement of single grain OSL.

Structures containing brick

We have been at the forefront of applying luminescence dating to brick from medieval buildings in England and this work has also included the dating of brick from medieval buildings in NW France with the University of Bordeaux III as part of a CNRS-funded GdRE network Ceramic Building Materials and New Dating Methods. A study produced, for the first time, absolute dates for a range of brick stupas located within the hinterland of Anuradhapura, contributing to the further development of a brick monument chronology for the region. Ongoing work is examining whether unfired clay bricks from various sites can be dated accurately.

Irrigation systems

OSL techniques are being applied to date sediment sequences in stratigraphic contexts associated with irrigation systems. In the absence of suitable organic samples for C-14 dating, these systems are very difficult to date. New approaches are being applied to the dating of post-Roman irrigation systems in Spain to establish when they were created and used. Also, as part of a major investigation supported by the European Research Centre and led by Prof. E. Sauer at the University of Edinburgh, a PhD project has started to investigate the application of OSL and geomorphological techniques to establish the chronology of irrigation systems and settlement sites associated with the demographic growth at the frontiers of the Sasanian Empire.

Prehistoric coastal settlement 

The availability of chronologies for aeolian horizons obtained using OSL provides a valuable tool in the study of the evolution of coastal landscape and how past coastal communities responded to climate change. The OSL dating of sands and palaeosol horizons, supported by geomorphological analysis, has identified critical stages in the development of the landscape on Herm on which megalithic monuments were constructed during the Neolithic period. The OSL dates identified three phases of significant aeolian activity during the prehistoric period, the onset dated to ca 4000, 3000 and 2300 years ago and evidence of ploughing activity was placed in the late 2nd millennium BC and in the 4th and 13th centuries AD. The testing of sediments directly associated with structures and monuments on Herm continues.

Palaeolithic upland sites

Our novel extension of the single aliquot OSL measurement procedure enabled single grain measurements to be performed with ~90 μm diameter quartz and applied to relatively fine-grained brickearth. Horizons within a sequence containing Lower Palaeolithic artefacts on an upland site associated with a solution feature (doline) at West Cliffe in Kent were dated by OSL to between ca 140 and 80 ka ago, placing the deposition of the artefacts significantly later than indicated by the artefact typology (>300 ka). Contrary to the expectation of in situ burial indicated by earlier research, the cultural deposits were probably displaced from their primary context by processes associated with the development of the solution feature and this has important implications for establishing the timing of hominin use of the upland areas. Beyond broad attribution to Lower or Middle Palaeolithic origin the occurrence of displacement raises doubts regarding the interpretation of the environments that prevailed.

Published Results

Journal Article

  • Bailiff, I.K., Scarre, C.J. & French, C.A. (2014). Application of luminescence dating and geomorphological analysis to the study of landscape evolution, settlement and climate change on the Channel Island of Herm. Journal of Archaeological Science 41: 890-903.
  • Bailiff, I.K., Lacey, H.R., Coningham, R.A.E., Gunawardhana, P., Adikari, G., Davis, C.E., Manuel, M.J. & Strickland, K.M. (2013). Luminescence dating of brick stupas: an application to the hinterland of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. Antiquity 87(335): 189-201.
  • Bailiff, I, Lewis, S, Drinkall, H. & White, M (2013). Luminescence dating of sediments from a Palaeolithic site associated with a solution feature on the North Downs of Kent, UK. Quaternary Geochronology 18: 135-148.
  • Blain,S., Bailiff, I.K., Guibert P., Bouvier, A. & Baylé M. (2010). An intercomparison study of luminescence dating protocols and techniques applied to medieval brick samples from Normandy (France). Quaternary Geochronology 5(2-3): 311-316.
  • Bailiff, I.K., Blain, S., Graves, C.P., Gurling, T. & Semple, S. (2010). Uses and recycling of brick in medieval English buildings: insights from the application of luminescence dating and new avenues for further research. The Archaeological Journal 167: 165-196.
  • P. Guibert, I.K. Bailiff, , S. Blain, A.M. Gueli, M. Martini, E. Sibilia, G. Stella, & S.O. Troja (2009). Luminescence dating of architectural ceramics from an early medieval abbey: The St Philbert Intercomparison (Loire Atlantique, France). Radiation Measurements 44(5-6): 488-493.
  • Bailiff IK (2007). Methodological developments in the luminescence dating of brick from English late medieval and post medieval buildings. Archaeometry 49(4): 827-851.
  • Bailiff, I. K. & Mikhailik, V. B. (2003). Spatially-resolved measurement of optically stimulated luminescence and time-resolved luminescence. Radiation Measurements 37(2): 151-159.

Chapter in book

  • Bailiff, I.K. (2013). Luminescence dating of brick from Brixworth Church- re-resting by the Durham Laboratory. In The Anglo-Saxon Church of All Saints, Brixworth, Northamptonshire. Parsons, David & Sutherland, D.S. Oxbow Books. 243-250.


From the Department of Archaeology