What is being measured in radiometric dating
Most of these principles were formally proposed by Nicolaus Steno (Niels Steensen, Danish), in 1669, although some have an even older heritage that extends as far back as the authors of the Bible.A few principles were recognized and specified later.Despite this, the "principle of cross cutting relationships" can be used to determine the sequence of deposition, folds, and faults based on their intersections -- if folds and faults deform or cut across the sedimentary layers and surfaces, then they obviously came after deposition of the sediments.You can't deform a structure (e.g., bedding) that is not there yet!The simplest situation for a geologist is a "layer cake" succession of sedimentary or extrusive igneous rock units arranged in nearly horizontal layers.In such a situation, the "principle of superposition" is easily applied, and the strata towards the bottom are older, those towards the top are younger.They are applied by geologists in the same sense that a "null hypothesis" is in statistics -- not necessarily correct, just testable.In the last 200 or more years of their application, they are valid, but geologists do not assume they are.
Cave deposits also often have distinctive structures of their own (e.g., spelothems like stalactites and stalagmites), so it is not likely that someone could mistake them for a successional sequence of rock units. Each of them is a testable hypothesis about the relationships between rock units and their characteristics.
The layers of rock are known as "strata", and the study of their succession is known as "stratigraphy".
Fundamental to stratigraphy are a set of simple principles, based on elementary geometry, empirical observation of the way these rocks are deposited today, and gravity.
An early summary of them is found in Charles Lyell's .
In no way are they meant to imply there are no exceptions.