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The extent of documentation varied considerably in 'historical' cultures and the information that survives is determined by a variety of factors.

If a context containing burnt debris and broken artefacts is excavated on a site from a historical period, it is tempting to search the local historical framework for references to warfare or a disaster in the region, and to date the excavated context accordingly.

In practice the most useful samples come from zircon or obsidian, which was used extensively for making tools.

The physical phenomenon of luminescence may be used to date artefacts that were made from (or include) crystalline minerals which have been subjected to strong heating.

Potassium-argon is ideal for dating early hominid fossils in East Africa, for they occur in an area that was volcanically active when the fossils were deposited between one and five million years ago; pioneering results in the 1950s doubled previous estimates of their age.