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In order to answer this question, fossils are of crucial importance.
The paleontological method is based on the study and interpretation of animal and vegetal organisms’ evolution during geological history, and in order to determine the relative age of a rock, the principle of superposition is used as a starting point, as well as fossil deposits preserved within a rock.
He put forth three propositions, the first being this: "If a solid body is enclosed on all sides by another solid body, of the two bodies that one first became hard which, in the mutual contact, expresses on its own surface the properties of the other surface." (This may be clearer if we change "expresses" to "impresses" and switch "own" with "other.") While the "official" Principles pertain to layers of rock and their shapes and orientations, Steno's own principles were strictly about "solids within solids." Which of two things came first? Thus he could confidently state that fossil shells existed before the rock that enclosed them.This method has been developed as part of paleontology – science concerned with fossils and development of life through geological history.