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We gauge the age of artefacts containing organic matter – like bones, plant remains and wooden tools – by comparing the amounts of the radioactive isotope carbon-14 and the stable carbon-12 that they contain.While it is alive, an organism’s tissues contain a ratio of the two isotopes that matches the ratio in the atmosphere.For example, says Joe Dortch, an archaeologist at the University of Western Australia in Crawley, the work will help us figure out whether humans or climate changes led to the extinction of megafauna, beginning in Australia around 45,000 years ago.“[The new study] is something that a lot of us have been working towards, but this is a big step up. Radiocarbon dating expert Paula Reimer, an archaeologist from Queen’s University Belfast, UK, says the accuracy with which we can determine an artefact’s age could be improved by up to 1000 years as a result of this work.“This is significant if you’re trying to measure rates of change such as glacier advances and retreats of species,” she says.We find the bones of the people who lived and were buried in these tombs. But primarily we date the pyramids by their position in the development of Egyptian architecture and material culture over the broad sweep of 3,000 years.

There are people who are experts in all these different periods of pottery or Egyptian ceramics.

We're dealing with basically the entirety of Egyptology and Egyptian archaeology.

NOVA: Can you give us an example of a single aspect of material culture, from ancient Egypt that you might use as a starting point for dating the pyramids? All the pottery you find at Giza looks like the pottery of the time of Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure, the kings who built these pyramids in what we call the Fourth Dynasty, the Old Kingdom.

Rarely do we have people from thousands of years ago who are writing, who are signing confessions.

So there's no one easy way that we know what the date of the pyramids happens to be. The pyramids are surrounded by cemeteries of other tombs. Sometimes we find organic materials, like fragments of reed, and wood, wooden coffins.

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