The most obvious feature of sedimentary rock is its layering.
This feature is produced by changes in deposition over time.
With this in mind geologist have long known that the deeper a sedimentary rock layer is the older it is, but how old?
Although there might be some mineral differences due to the difference in source rock, most sedimentary rock deposited year after year look very similar to one another.
Though relative dating can only determine the sequential order in which a series of events occurred, not when they occur, it remains a useful technique especially in radiometric dating.
Relative dating by biostratigraphy is the preferred method in paleontology, and is in some respects more accurate (Stanley, 167–69).
This means that a quartz sandstone deposited 500 million years ago will look very similar to a quartz sandstone deposited 50 years ago.
Making this processes even more difficult is the fact that due to plate tectonics some rock layers have been uplifted into mountains and eroded while others have subsided to form basins and be buried by younger sediments.
Prior to the late 17th century, geologic time was thought to be the same as historical time.The Law of Superposition, which states that older layers will be deeper in a site than more recent layers, was the summary outcome of 'relative dating' as observed in geology from the 17th century to the early 20th century.The regular order of occurrence of fossils in rock layers was discovered around 1800 by William Smith.From top to bottom: Rounded tan domes of the Navajo Sandstone, layered red Kayenta Formation, cliff-forming, vertically jointed, red Wingate Sandstone, slope-forming, purplish Chinle Formation, layered, lighter-red Moenkopi Formation, and white, layered Cutler Formation sandstone.Picture from Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Utah.Geologist in the 1800s worked out 7 basic principles of stratigraphy that allowed them, and now us, to work out the relative ages of rocks.