Geologists have established a set of principles that can be applied to sedimentary and volcanic rocks that are exposed at the Earth's surface to determine the relative ages of geological events preserved in the rock record.For example, in the rocks exposed in the walls of the Grand Canyon (Figure 1) there are many horizontal layers, which are called strata.This is the principle of original horizontality: layers of strata are deposited horizontally or nearly horizontally (Figure 2).
The principle of superposition states that in an undeformed sequence of sedimentary rocks, each layer of rock is older than the one above it and younger than the one below it (Figures 1 and 2).
Accordingly, the oldest rocks in a sequence are at the bottom and the youngest rocks are at the top.
Sometimes sedimentary rocks are disturbed by events, such as fault movements, that cut across layers after the rocks were deposited.
This is the principle of cross-cutting relationships.
The principle states that any geologic features that cut across strata must have formed after the rocks they cut through (Figures 2 and 3).
According to the principle of original horizontality, these strata must have been deposited horizontally and then titled vertically after they were deposited.Most sediment is either laid down horizontally in bodies of water like the oceans, or on land on the margins of streams and rivers.Each time a new layer of sediment is deposited it is laid down horizontally on top of an older layer.Despite seeming like a relatively stable place, the Earth's surface has changed dramatically over the past 4.6 billion years.Mountains have been built and eroded, continents and oceans have moved great distances, and the Earth has fluctuated from being extremely cold and almost completely covered with ice to being very warm and ice-free.A fossil can be studied to determine what kind of organism it represents, how the organism lived, and how it was preserved.