From Academic Kids


Seriaton in Archaeology

Seriation is a way of situating an object within a series. In the words of archeologist Gehrard, "whoever sees one monument has really seen none; whoever has seen a thousand has only seen one." (cited in Molino 1974, p.87)

In the field of archaeology seriation is a relative dating method.

Where absolute dating methods, such as carbon dating, cannot be applied, archaeologists have to use relative dating methods to date archaeological finds and features. Typological sequencing was pioneered by the Swede Oscar Montelius (1903) who created relative chronologies for prehistoric European tools. Assuming that changes in artefact design are incremental, that different cultures would produce different designs and that neighbouring cultures would influence one another, Montelius constructed a model of relative dating and the flow of cultural influence which matched the evidence and the contemporary theoretical approach of cultural history. Once a definitive date has been ascribed to one or two artefacts in a sequence, then estimates can be made as to the dates of the others. This method is still widely used though it requires a wide range of design types in appreciable numbers to work best.

William Flinders Petrie excavated at Diospolis Parva in Egypt in the late nineteenth century. He found that the graves he was uncovering contained no evidence of their dates and their discrete nature meant that a sequence could not be constructed through their stratigraphy. Petrie listed the contents of each grave on pieces of paper and swapped the papers around until he arrived at a sequence he was satisfied with (Petrie 1899). He reasoned that the most accurate sequence would be the one where concentrations of certain design styles had the shortest duration across the sequence of papers.

Later work using multivariate statistics, such as correspondence analysis (Kendall 1971), has supported the effectiveness of Petrie's seriation method for producing correct sequences.

Assuming that design styles follow a bell curve of popularity: starting slowly, growing to a peak and then dying away as another style becomes popular provides the basis for frequency seriation. It also assumes that design popularity will be broadly similar from site to site within the same culture. Following these rules, an assemblage of objects can be placed into sequence so that sites with the most similar proportions of certain styles are always together.


  • Montelius, O. (1903). Die typologische Methode. Stockholm: Selbstverlag
  • Petrie, F. W. M. (1899). Sequences in prehistoric remains. Journal of the Anthropological Institute 29:295-301
  • Kendall, D.G. (1971). "Seriation from abundance matrices," in Mathematics in the Archaeological and Historical Sciences. Edited by F. R. Hodson, D. G. Kendall, and P. Tautu, pp. 215-252. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 0852242131.

Seriation in Semiotics

The term seriation [mise en série] was proposed for use in semiotics by Jean Molino and derived from classical philology. Seriation "invokes the idea that any investigator, in order to assign some plausible meaning to a given phenomena, must interpret it within a series of comparable phenomena. One cannot interpret what philology calls a hapax; that is, an isolated phenomenon. Art historian Erwin Panofsky has explained the situation in very clear terms:

  • 'Whether we deal with historical or natural phenomena, the individual observation of phenomena assumes the character of a 'fact' only when it can be related to other, analogous observations in such a way that the whole series 'makes sense.' This 'sense' is, therefore, fully capable of being applied, as a control, to the interpretation of a new individual observation within the same range of phenomena. If, however, this new individual observation definitely refuses to be interpreted according to the 'sense' of the series, and if an error proves to be impossible, the 'sense' of the series will have to be reformulated to include the new individual observation' (1955, p.35)" (1990, p.230-231).

A seriation is determined by the plot.


  • Nattiez, Jean-Jacques (1990). Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music (Musicologie générale et sémiologue, 1987). Translated by Carolyn Abbate (1990). ISBN 0691027145.
    • Molino, Jean (1974).
    • Panofksy, Erwin (1955).

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