When news is announced on the discovery of an archaeological find, we often hear about how the age of the sample was determined using radiocarbon dating, otherwise simply known as carbon dating. Deemed the gold standard of archaeology, the method was developed in the late s and is based on the idea that radiocarbon carbon 14 is being constantly created in the atmosphere by cosmic rays which then combine with atmospheric oxygen to form CO2, which is then incorporated into plants during photosynthesis. When the plant or animal that consumed the foliage dies, it stops exchanging carbon with the environment and from there on in it is simply a case of measuring how much carbon 14 has been emitted, giving its age. But new research conducted by Cornell University could be about to throw the field of archaeology on its head with the claim that there could be a number of inaccuracies in commonly accepted carbon dating standards. If this is true, then many of our established historical timelines are thrown into question, potentially needing a re-write of the history books.
These results were published in Science in In nature, carbon exists as two stable, nonradioactive isotopes : carbon 12 Cand carbon 13 Cand a radioactive isotope, carbon 14 Calso known as "radiocarbon". The half-life of 14 C the time it takes for half of a given amount of 14 C to decay is about 5, years, so its concentration in the atmosphere might be expected to decrease over thousands of years, but 14 C is constantly being produced in the lower stratosphere and upper troposphereprimarily by galactic cosmic raysand to a lesser degree by solar cosmic rays.
Once produced, the 14 C quickly combines with the oxygen in the atmosphere to form first carbon monoxide CO and ultimately carbon dioxide CO 2. Carbon dioxide produced in this way diffuses in the atmosphere, is dissolved in the ocean, and is taken up by plants via photosynthesis.
Animals eat the plants, and ultimately the radiocarbon is distributed throughout the biosphere.
The ratio of 14 C to 12 C is approximately 1. The equation for the radioactive decay of 14 C is: . During its life, a plant or animal is in equilibrium with its surroundings by exchanging carbon either with the atmosphere or through its diet.
It will, therefore, have the same proportion of 14 C as the atmosphere, or in the case of marine animals or plants, with the ocean. Once it dies, it ceases to acquire 14 Cbut the 14 C within its biological material at that time will continue to decay, and so the ratio of 14 C to 12 C in its remains will gradually decrease.
The equation governing the decay of a radioactive isotope is: . Measurement of Nthe number of 14 C atoms currently in the sample, allows the calculation of tthe age of the sample, using the equation above.
The above calculations make several assumptions, such as that the level of 14 C in the atmosphere has remained constant over time. Calculating radiocarbon ages also requires the value of the half-life for 14 C. Radiocarbon ages are still calculated using this half-life, and are known as "Conventional Radiocarbon Age". Since the calibration curve IntCal also reports past atmospheric 14 C concentration using this conventional age, any conventional ages calibrated against the IntCal curve will produce a correct calibrated age.
When a date is quoted, the reader should be aware that if it is an uncalibrated date a term used for dates given in radiocarbon years it may differ substantially from the best estimate of the actual calendar date, both because it uses the wrong value for the half-life of 14 Cand because no correction calibration has been applied for the historical variation of 14 C in the atmosphere over time.
Carbon is distributed throughout the atmosphere, the biosphere, and the oceans; these are referred to collectively as the carbon exchange reservoir,  and each component is also referred to individually as a carbon exchange reservoir.
The different elements of the carbon exchange reservoir vary in how much carbon they store, and in how long it takes for the 14 C generated by cosmic rays to fully mix with them. This affects the ratio of 14 C to 12 C in the different reservoirs, and hence the radiocarbon ages of samples that originated in each reservoir. There are several other possible sources of error that need to be considered. The errors are of four general types:. To verify the accuracy of the method, several artefacts that were datable by other techniques were tested; the results of the testing were in reasonable agreement with the true ages of the objects.
Over time, however, discrepancies began to appear between the known chronology for the oldest Egyptian dynasties and the radiocarbon dates of Egyptian artefacts. The question was resolved by the study of tree rings :    comparison of overlapping series of tree rings allowed the construction of a continuous sequence of tree-ring data that spanned 8, years.
Coal and oil began to be burned in large quantities during the 19th century.
(1.) C14 dating is very accurate for wood used up to about 4, years ago. This is only because it is well calibrated with objects of known age. Example: wood found in a grave of known age by historically reliable documents is the standard for that time for the C14 content. Jan 02, Question: "Is carbon dating a reliable method for determining the age of things?" Answer: Carbon dating, or radiocarbon dating, like any other laboratory testing technique, can be extremely reliable, so long as all of the variables involved are controlled and understood. Several factors affect radiocarbon test results, not all of which are easy to control objectively. Jun 06, Though one of the most essential tools for determining an ancient object's age, carbon dating might not be as accurate as we once thought. When news is announced on the discovery of an.
Dating an object from the early 20th century hence gives an apparent date older than the true date. For the same reason, 14 C concentrations in the neighbourhood of large cities are lower than the atmospheric average.
This fossil fuel effect also known as the Suess effect, after Hans Suess, who first reported it in would only amount to a reduction of 0. A much larger effect comes from above-ground nuclear testing, which released large numbers of neutrons and created 14 C.
From about untilwhen atmospheric nuclear testing was banned, it is estimated that several tonnes of 14 C were created.
The level has since dropped, as this bomb pulse or "bomb carbon" as it is sometimes called percolates into the rest of the reservoir.
Photosynthesis is the primary process by which carbon moves from the atmosphere into living things. In photosynthetic pathways 12 C is absorbed slightly more easily than 13 Cwhich in turn is more easily absorbed than 14 C. This effect is known as isotopic fractionation. At higher temperatures, CO 2 has poor solubility in water, which means there is less CO 2 available for the photosynthetic reactions. The enrichment of bone 13 C also implies that excreted material is depleted in 13 C relative to the diet.
The carbon exchange between atmospheric CO 2 and carbonate at the ocean surface is also subject to fractionation, with 14 C in the atmosphere more likely than 12 C to dissolve in the ocean.
Is carbon dating accurate and reliable
This increase in 14 C concentration almost exactly cancels out the decrease caused by the upwelling of water containing old, and hence 14 C depleted, carbon from the deep ocean, so that direct measurements of 14 C radiation are similar to measurements for the rest of the biosphere. Correcting for isotopic fractionation, as is done for all radiocarbon dates to allow comparison between results from different parts of the biosphere, gives an apparent age of about years for ocean surface water.
The marine effect : The CO 2 in the atmosphere transfers to the ocean by dissolving in the surface water as carbonate and bicarbonate ions; at the same time the carbonate ions in the water are returning to the air as CO 2.
The deepest parts of the ocean mix very slowly with the surface waters, and the mixing is uneven. The main mechanism that brings deep water to the surface is upwelling, which is more common in regions closer to the equator. Upwelling is also influenced by factors such as the topography of the local ocean bottom and coastlines, the climate, and wind patterns. Overall, the mixing of deep and surface waters takes far longer than the mixing of atmospheric CO 2 with the surface waters, and as a result water from some deep ocean areas has an apparent radiocarbon age of several thousand years.
Upwelling mixes this "old" water with the surface water, giving the surface water an apparent age of about several hundred years after correcting for fractionation. The northern and southern hemispheres have atmospheric circulation systems that are sufficiently independent of each other that there is a noticeable time lag in mixing between the two.
Since the surface ocean is depleted in 14 C because of the marine effect, 14 C is removed from the southern atmosphere more quickly than in the north.
For example, rivers that pass over limestonewhich is mostly composed of calcium carbonatewill acquire carbonate ions. Similarly, groundwater can contain carbon derived from the rocks through which it has passed. Volcanic eruptions eject large amounts of carbon into the air. Dormant volcanoes can also emit aged carbon. Any addition of carbon to a sample of a different age will cause the measured date to be inaccurate. Contamination with modern carbon causes a sample to appear to be younger than it really is: the effect is greater for older samples.
Samples for dating need to be converted into a form suitable for measuring the 14 C content; this can mean conversion to gaseous, liquid, or solid form, depending on the measurement technique to be used. Before this can be done, the sample must be treated to remove any contamination and any unwanted constituents. Particularly for older samples, it may be useful to enrich the amount of 14 C in the sample before testing.
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This can be done with a thermal diffusion column. Once contamination has been removed, samples must be converted to a form suitable for the measuring technology to be used. For accelerator mass spectrometrysolid graphite targets are the most common, although gaseous CO 2 can also be used.
The quantity of material needed for testing depends on the sample type and the technology being used. There are two types of testing technology: detectors that record radioactivity, known as beta counters, and accelerator mass spectrometers.
For beta counters, a sample weighing at least 10 grams 0. For decades after Libby performed the first radiocarbon dating experiments, the only way to measure the 14 C in a sample was to detect the radioactive decay of individual carbon atoms.
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Libby's first detector was a Geiger counter of his own design. He converted the carbon in his sample to lamp black soot and coated the inner surface of a cylinder with it.
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This cylinder was inserted into the counter in such a way that the counting wire was inside the sample cylinder, in order that there should be no material between the sample and the wire. Libby's method was soon superseded by gas proportional counterswhich were less affected by bomb carbon the additional 14 C created by nuclear weapons testing.
These counters record bursts of ionization caused by the beta particles emitted by the decaying 14 C atoms; the bursts are proportional to the energy of the particle, so other sources of ionization, such as background radiation, can be identified and ignored. The counters are surrounded by lead or steel shielding, to eliminate background radiation and to reduce the incidence of cosmic rays.
In addition, anticoincidence detectors are used; these record events outside the counter and any event recorded simultaneously both inside and outside the counter is regarded as an extraneous event and ignored. The other common technology used for measuring 14 C activity is liquid scintillation counting, which was invented inbut which had to wait until the early s, when efficient methods of benzene synthesis were developed, to become competitive with gas counting; after liquid counters became the more common technology choice for newly constructed dating laboratories.
The counters work by detecting flashes of light caused by the beta particles emitted by 14 C as they interact with a fluorescing agent added to the benzene. Like gas counters, liquid scintillation counters require shielding and anticoincidence counters. For both the gas proportional counter and liquid scintillation counter, what is measured is the number of beta particles detected in a given time period.
This provides a value for the background radiation, which must be subtracted from the measured activity of the sample being dated to get the activity attributable solely to that sample's 14 C.
In addition, a sample with a standard activity is measured, to provide a baseline for comparison. The ions are accelerated and passed through a stripper, which removes several electrons so that the ions emerge with a positive charge.
A particle detector then records the number of ions detected in the 14 C stream, but since the volume of 12 C and 13 Cneeded for calibration is too great for individual ion detection, counts are determined by measuring the electric current created in a Faraday cup.
Any 14 C signal from the machine background blank is likely to be caused either by beams of ions that have not followed the expected path inside the detector or by carbon hydrides such as 12 CH 2 or 13 CH. A 14 C signal from the process blank measures the amount of contamination introduced during the preparation of the sample. These measurements are used in the subsequent calculation of the age of the sample.
The calculations to be performed on the measurements taken depend on the technology used, since beta counters measure the sample's radioactivity whereas AMS determines the ratio of the three different carbon isotopes in the sample.
To determine the age of a sample whose activity has been measured by beta counting, the ratio of its activity to the activity of the standard must be found. To determine this, a blank sample of old, or dead, carbon is measured, and a sample of known activity is measured.
The additional samples allow errors such as background radiation and systematic errors in the laboratory setup to be detected and corrected for. The results from AMS testing are in the form of ratios of 12 C13 Cand 14 Cwhich are used to calculate Fm, the "fraction modern".
Both beta counting and AMS results have to be corrected for fractionation. The calculation uses 8, the mean-life derived from Libby's half-life of 5, years, not 8, the mean-life derived from the more accurate modern value of 5, years. Libby's value for the half-life is used to maintain consistency with early radiocarbon testing results; calibration curves include a correction for this, so the accuracy of final reported calendar ages is assured.
The reliability of the results can be improved by lengthening the testing time. Radiocarbon dating is generally limited to dating samples no more than 50, years old, as samples older than that have insufficient 14 C to be measurable.
Older dates have been obtained by using special sample preparation techniques, large samples, and very long measurement times. These techniques can allow measurement of dates up to 60, and in some cases up to 75, years before the present.
In order for carbon dating to be accurate, we must know what the ratio of carbon to carbon was in the environment in which our specimen lived during its lifetime. Unfortunately the ratio of carbon to carbon has yet to reach a state of equilibrium in our atmosphere; there is more carbon in the air today than there was thousands of.
This was demonstrated in by an experiment run by the British Museum radiocarbon laboratory, in which weekly measurements were taken on the same sample for six months. The measurements included one with a range from about to about years ago, and another with a range from about to about Errors in procedure can also lead to errors in the results. The calculations given above produce dates in radiocarbon years: i. To produce a curve that can be used to relate calendar years to radiocarbon years, a sequence of securely dated samples is needed which can be tested to determine their radiocarbon age.
The study of tree rings led to the first such sequence: individual pieces of wood show characteristic sequences of rings that vary in thickness because of environmental factors such as the amount of rainfall in a given year. These factors affect all trees in an area, so examining tree-ring sequences from old wood allows the identification of overlapping sequences. In this way, an uninterrupted sequence of tree rings can be extended far into the past. The first such published sequence, based on bristlecone pine tree rings, was created by Wesley Ferguson.
Suess said he drew the line showing the wiggles by "cosmic schwung ", by which he meant that the variations were caused by extraterrestrial forces. It was unclear for some time whether the wiggles were real or not, but they are now well-established.
A calibration curve is used by taking the radiocarbon date reported by a laboratory and reading across from that date on the vertical axis of the graph. The point where this horizontal line intersects the curve will give the calendar age of the sample on the horizontal axis. This is the reverse of the way the curve is constructed: a point on the graph is derived from a sample of known age, such as a tree ring; when it is tested, the resulting radiocarbon age gives a data point for the graph.
Over the next thirty years many calibration curves were published using a variety of methods and statistical approaches. The IntCal20 data includes separate curves for the northern and southern hemispheres, as they differ systematically because of the hemisphere effect. The southern curve SHCAL20 is based on independent data where possible and derived from the northern curve by adding the average offset for the southern hemisphere where no direct data was available.
The sequence can be compared to the calibration curve and the best match to the sequence established. This "wiggle-matching" technique can lead to more precise dating than is possible with individual radiocarbon dates. Bayesian statistical techniques can be applied when there are several radiocarbon dates to be calibrated. For example, if a series of radiocarbon dates is taken from different levels in a stratigraphic sequence, Bayesian analysis can be used to evaluate dates which are outliers and can calculate improved probability distributions, based on the prior information that the sequence should be ordered in time.
Several formats for citing radiocarbon results have been used since the first samples were dated. As ofthe standard format required by the journal Radiocarbon is as follows. Related forms are sometimes used: for example, "10 ka BP" means 10, radiocarbon years before present i.
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The curve used to calibrate the results should be the latest available IntCal curve. Calibrated dates should also identify any programs, such as OxCal, used to perform the calibration. A key concept in interpreting radiocarbon dates is archaeological association : what is the true relationship between two or more objects at an archaeological site?
It frequently happens that a sample for radiocarbon dating can be taken directly from the object of interest, but there are also many cases where this is not possible. Metal grave goods, for example, cannot be radiocarbon dated, but they may be found in a grave with a coffin, charcoal, or other material which can be assumed to have been deposited at the same time.
In these cases, a date for the coffin or charcoal is indicative of the date of deposition of the grave goods, because of the direct functional relationship between the two. There are also cases where there is no functional relationship, but the association is reasonably strong: for example, a layer of charcoal in a rubbish pit provides a date which has a relationship to the rubbish pit.
Contamination is of particular concern when dating very old material obtained from archaeological excavations and great care is needed in the specimen selection and preparation.
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InThomas Higham and co-workers suggested that many of the dates published for Neanderthal artefacts are too recent because of contamination by "young carbon". As a tree grows, only the outermost tree ring exchanges carbon with its environment, so the age measured for a wood sample depends on where the sample is taken from. This means that radiocarbon dates on wood samples can be older than the date at which the tree was felled.
In addition, if a piece of wood is used for multiple purposes, there may be a significant delay between the felling of the tree and the final use in the context in which it is found. Another example is driftwood, which may be used as construction material.
It is not always possible to recognize re-use. Other materials can present the same problem: for example, bitumen is known to have been used by some Neolithic communities to waterproof baskets; the bitumen's radiocarbon age will be greater than is measurable by the laboratory, regardless of the actual age of the context, so testing the basket material will give a misleading age if care is not taken.
As a result, carbon dating is only plausible for objects less than about 40, years old. The other major factor affecting the results of carbon dating is gauging the original proportion of carbon itself. Carbon dating is based on the loss of carbon, so, even if the present amount in a specimen can be detected accurately, we must still know how much carbon the organism started with. Scientists must assume how much carbon was in the organism when it died.
As samples get older, errors are magnified, and assumptions can render carbon dating all but useless. Likewise, different living things absorb or reject carbon at different rates. Two plants that died at the same moment, but which naturally contained different levels of radiocarbon, could be dated to drastically different times.
All in all, setting the parameters of the carbon test is more of an art than a science. Contamination and repeatability are also factors that have to be considered with carbon dating. A tiny amount of carbon contamination will greatly skew test results, so sample preparation is critical. Even then, a large proportion of radiocarbon dating tests return inconsistent, or even incoherent, results, even for tests done on the same sample. At best, it needs to be acknowledged.
At worst, it can make carbon dating circular and self-confirming, though there are other means of dating that can reduce this risk. It is not, however, an inherently error-free or black-and-white method for dating objects. Share this page on:. Find Out How to