Thermoluminescence dating (TL) is the determination, by means of measuring the accumulated radiation dose, of the time elapsed since material containing crystalline minerals was either heated (lava, ceramics) or exposed to sunlight (sediments). As a crystalline material is heated during measurements, the process of thermoluminescence starts. Thermoluminescence emits a weak light signal that is proportional to the radiation dose absorbed by the material. It is a type of luminescence dating.
The technique has wide application, and is relatively cheap at some US$300–700 per object; ideally a number of samples are tested. Sediments are more expensive to date. The destruction of a relatively significant amount of sample material is necessary, which can be a limitation in the case of artworks. The heating must have taken the object above 500° C, which covers most ceramics, although very high-fired porcelain creates other difficulties. It will often work well with stones that have been heated by fire. The clay core of bronze sculptures made by lost wax casting can also be tested.
Different materials vary considerably in their suitability for the technique, depending on several factors. Subsequent irradiation, for example if an x-ray is taken, can affect accuracy, as will the “annual dose” of radiation a buried object has received from the surrounding soil. Ideally this is assessed by measurements made at the precise findspot over a long period. For artworks, it may be sufficient to confirm whether a piece is broadly ancient or modern (that is, authentic or a fake), and this may be possible even if a precise date cannot be estimated.
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