Absolute dating techniques in archaeology

Olsen and her team have set up camp in a copse of windswept trees a few hundred yards from the ancient Krasnyi Yar site.There are two dozen sleep tents, a large circular-domed yurt that serves as the mess hall, and a rusty mobile home referred to by the Russian word vagon.

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During winter, which lasts nearly nine months of the year, they dressed in the furs of various small mammals, huddled around fires, and ate horse meat.

And they left behind some clues: Their pit houses are chock-full of bones, 90 percent of them from horses.

In the early 1960s Russian archaeologists excavated a 6,000-year-old site in Ukraine called Dereivka, where they found a stallion skull that had distinctive beveling on its teeth.

They thought that was unequivocal evidence of a riding bit.

The vagon is Olsen's lab, complete with microscopes, measuring tools, laptop computers, and a growling propane generator.

It's the little house on the prairie where Olsen, a native Kansan, brings a long-lost world alive.

But one of the most enduring archaeological mysteries has yet to be resolved.

Who were the original horsemen, and what inspired them to straddle a 1,000-pound beast that could kick out their brains with one blow?

"I don't care much for living horses," she says, conscious of the irony.

"It's their bones I like." Archaeologists who study the domestication of other animals have a much easier time analyzing skeletal artifacts.

"With dogs, pigs, sheep, and cattle, you can see morphological changes in their bones" over time, says Olsen, sitting on a small wooden chair that looks like it was borrowed from a grade school.

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