Isotope dating of rocks
By dating these surrounding layers, they can figure out the youngest and oldest that the fossil might be; this is known as "bracketing" the age of the sedimentary layer in which the fossils occur.
Teach your students about absolute dating: Determining age of rocks and fossils, a classroom activity for grades 9-12.
The universe is full of naturally occurring radioactive elements.
Radioactive atoms are inherently unstable; over time, radioactive "parent atoms" decay into stable "daughter atoms." When molten rock cools, forming what are called igneous rocks, radioactive atoms are trapped inside. By measuring the quantity of unstable atoms left in a rock and comparing it to the quantity of stable daughter atoms in the rock, scientists can estimate the amount of time that has passed since that rock formed.
In a related article on geologic ages (Ages), we presented a chart with the various geologic eras and their ages.Fossils are generally found in sedimentary rock not igneous rock.Sedimentary rocks can be dated using radioactive carbon, but because carbon decays relatively quickly, this only works for rocks younger than about 50 thousand years.Technical details on how these dates are calculated are given in Radiometric dating. As with any experimental procedure in any field of science, these measurements are subject to certain "glitches" and "anomalies," as noted in the literature.Here is one example of an isochron, based on measurements of basaltic meteorites (in this case the resulting date is 4.4 billion years) [Basaltic1981, pg. Skeptics of old-earth geology make great hay of these examples.