Depositional ages of sedimentary rocks can be determined using fission-track single grain ages on zircons from layers of volcanic ash or bentonite, even when the layers have been contaminated by older grains. This is done by compiling an age probability distribution or age spectrum for a sample from individual grain ages. An age spectrum is a simple and unambiguous way of testing for contamination and extracting useful age information. The youngest peak in the age spectrum approximates the time of deposition.
In most contaminated samples, 30 or more grains should be counted to produce a reliable spectrum. However, useful, reproducible ages can be obtained by counting less than 10 grains in samples where most of the older, contaminating grains can be removed. The few older grains that remain after removing the obviously abraded ones may then be eliminated by examining the age spectrum. Although ages determined in this way are probably not precise enough for use in defining stratigraphic boundaries, they still provide a means of obtaining an isotopic age in sediments that cannot be dated by other radiometric methods.