Radiocarbon dating organic materials

The Radiocarbon Revolution Since its development by Willard Libby in the 1940s, radiocarbon (14C) dating has become one of the most essential tools in archaeology.

Radiocarbon dating was the first chronometric technique widely available to archaeologists and was especially useful because it allowed researchers to directly date the panoply of organic remains often found in archaeological sites including artifacts made from bone, shell, wood, and other carbon based materials.

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Radiocarbon dating is especially good for determining the age of sites occupied within the last 26,000 years or so (but has the potential for sites over 50,000), can be used on carbon-based materials (organic or inorganic), and can be accurate to within ±30-50 years.

Probably the most important factor to consider when using radiocarbon dating is if external factors, whether through artificial contamination, animal disturbance, or human negligence, contributed to any errors in the determinations.

The Earth's atmosphere contains various isotopes of carbon, roughly in constant proportions.

These include the main stable isotope (12C) and an unstable isotope (14C).When an organism dies, it contains the standard ratio of 14C to 12C, but as the 14C isotope decays, the proportion of carbon 14 decreases at a known constant rate.The time taken for it to reduce by half is known as the half-life and the measurement of the remaining levels of 14C in organic matter can be used to give an estimate of its age.However, there are a number of other factors that can affect the amount of carbon present in a sample and how that information is interpreted by archaeologists.Thus a great deal of care is taken in securing and processing samples and multiple samples are often required if we want to be confident about assigning a date to a site, feature, or artifact (read more about the radiocarbon dating technique at: For example, rootlet intrusion, soil type (e.g., limestone carbonates), and handling of the specimens in the field or lab (e.g., accidental introduction of tobacco ash, hair, or fibers) can all potentially affect the age of a sample.

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