Scientists can use certain types of fossils referred to as index fossils to assist in relative dating via correlation.
Index fossils are fossils that are known to only occur within a very specific age range.
Typically commonly occurring fossils that had a widespread geographic distribution such as brachiopods, trilobites, and ammonites work best as index fossils.
If the fossil you are trying to date occurs alongside one of these index fossils, then the fossil you are dating must fall into the age range of the index fossil. In a hypothetical example, a rock formation contains fossils of a type of brachiopod known to occur between 410 and 420 million years.
While people are most familiar with carbon dating, carbon dating is rarely applicable to fossils.The same rock formation also contains a type of trilobite that was known to live 415 to 425 million years ago.Since the rock formation contains both types of fossils the ago of the rock formation must be in the overlapping date range of 415 to 420 million years.The Wheeler Formation has been previously dated to approximately 507 million year old, so we know the trilobite is also about 507 million years old.But, how can we determine how old a rock formation is, if it hasn’t previously been dated?