There are three methods by which archaeologists are able to provide dates for imagery within Palaeolithic caves.
- These include the relative method where if one image is seen to be painted or engraved over another image it is clear that the image on top is later; where this type of layering exists the imagery is described as a palimpsest.
- In addition to this method archaeologists are able to make comparisons with mobile art, that which is carved on small portable object perhaps made of bone or ivory, and are also able to recognise stylistic changes over time and link this with stratigraphic dating.
- The final dating method is through the use of absolute methods, which include carbon 14 dating, nowadays using an accelerator mass spectrometer, the use of thermoluminescence, and Uranium series dating. But these methods also have issues of reliability. Direct dates may be obtained by dating the pigment used, other than this the three other methods are indirect. Dating of the flowstone is able to provide dates for layers of stone below and above images. Indirect associative dating provides dates for material that is associated with images, perhaps imagery of similar style found upon materials such as bone or antler. Finally if an area of a cave is sealed by a build-up of flowstone then the dating of this flowstone provides a date which images must be earlier than.
The stages of the Upper Palaeolithic in which we find cave art are divided by archaeologists into four main stanges which may then be subdivided. The Magdalenian, for example, is divided into Early, Middle and Late. The names and date ranges which archaeologists have given to the stages of prehistory where cave decoration took place
- Proto_aurignacian 42,778 BP – 40,037 BP
- Aurignacian 1 40,000 yr BP
- Aurignacian II 37,000 yr BP
- Latest Aurignacian (France and Spain) 35,032-34,490 yr BP
- Earliest Gravettian 27,400 yr BP
- Latest Gravettian 24,975-23,275 yr BP
- Earliest Solutrian 26,921-23,578 yr BP
- Early Magdalenian (17,000-14,700 BP )
Dates are few and far between, since many of these figures are engraved or painted using a red pigment, rather than a more dateable black pigment containing charcoal.