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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.As an example of how they are used, radiometric dates from geologically simple, fossiliferous Cretaceous rocks in western North America are compared to the geological time scale.To get to that point, there is also a historical discussion and description of non-radiometric dating methods.They are the "initial working hypotheses" to be tested further by data.Using these principles, it is possible to construct an interpretation of the sequence of events for any geological situation, even on other planets (e.g., a crater impact can cut into an older, pre-existing surface, or craters may overlap, revealing their relative ages).
In no way are they meant to imply there are no exceptions.
The example used here contrasts sharply with the way conventional scientific dating methods are characterized by some critics (for example, refer to discussion in "Common Creationist Criticisms of Mainstream Dating Methods" in the Age of the Earth FAQ and Isochron Dating FAQ).
A common form of criticism is to cite geologically complicated situations where the application of radiometric dating is very challenging.
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!
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For example, the principle of superposition is based, fundamentally, on gravity.