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How Carbon Dating Works | HowStuffWorks
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 C , and 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: Coal and oil began to be burned in large quantities during the 19th century.
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 until , when 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 C , which 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. 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 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.
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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 limestone , which is mostly composed of calcium carbonate , will 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: 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.
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 spectrometry , solid 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: For beta counters, a sample weighing at least 10 grams 0.
How Does Carbon Dating Work
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. 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. 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 counters , which 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.
How Does Radiocarbon-14 Dating Work?
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 in , but 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 C , needed 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 C , 13 C , and 14 C , which 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. 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.
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: 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: 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: Over the next thirty years many calibration curves were published using a variety of methods and statistical approaches. The improvements to these curves are based on new data gathered from tree rings, varves , coral , plant macrofossils , speleothems , and foraminifera.
The INTCAL13 data includes separate curves for the northern and southern hemispheres, as they differ systematically because of the hemisphere effect. The southern curve SHCAL13 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.
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The sequence can be compared to the calibration curve and the best match to the sequence established. 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 of , the standard format required by the journal Radiocarbon is as follows.
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For example, the uncalibrated date "UtC Related forms are sometimes used: 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: 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: 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.
In , Thomas 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: A separate issue, related to re-use, is that of lengthy use, or delayed deposition.
For example, a wooden object that remains in use for a lengthy period will have an apparent age greater than the actual age of the context in which it is deposited. Archaeology is not the only field to make use of radiocarbon dating. The ability to date minute samples using AMS has meant that palaeobotanists and palaeoclimatologists can use radiocarbon dating on pollen samples. Radiocarbon dates can also be used in geology, sedimentology, and lake studies, for example.
In this method, the sample is in liquid form and a scintillator is added. This scintillator produces a flash of light when it interacts with a beta particle. A vial with a sample is passed between two photomultipliers, and only when both devices register the flash of light that a count is made. Accelerator mass spectrometry AMS is a modern radiocarbon dating method that is considered to be the more efficient way to measure radiocarbon content of a sample.
In this method, the carbon 14 content is directly measured relative to the carbon 12 and carbon 13 present. The method does not count beta particles but the number of carbon atoms present in the sample and the proportion of the isotopes. Not all materials can be radiocarbon dated. Most, if not all, organic compounds can be dated.
Samples that have been radiocarbon dated since the inception of the method include charcoal , wood , twigs, seeds , bones , shells , leather, peat , lake mud, soil , hair, pottery , pollen , wall paintings, corals, blood residues, fabrics , paper or parchment, resins, and water , among others. Physical and chemical pretreatments are done on these materials to remove possible contaminants before they are analyzed for their radiocarbon content. The radiocarbon age of a certain sample of unknown age can be determined by measuring its carbon 14 content and comparing the result to the carbon 14 activity in modern and background samples.
The principal modern standard used by radiocarbon dating labs was the Oxalic Acid I obtained from the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Maryland. This oxalic acid came from sugar beets in When the stocks of Oxalic Acid I were almost fully consumed, another standard was made from a crop of French beet molasses.
Over the years, other secondary radiocarbon standards have been made. Radiocarbon activity of materials in the background is also determined to remove its contribution from results obtained during a sample analysis. Background samples analyzed are usually geological in origin of infinite age such as coal, lignite, and limestone. A radiocarbon measurement is termed a conventional radiocarbon age CRA.
The CRA conventions include a usage of the Libby half-life, b usage of Oxalic Acid I or II or any appropriate secondary standard as the modern radiocarbon standard, c correction for sample isotopic fractionation to a normalized or base value of These values have been derived through statistical means.
American physical chemist Willard Libby led a team of scientists in the post World War II era to develop a method that measures radiocarbon activity. He is credited to be the first scientist to suggest that the unstable carbon isotope called radiocarbon or carbon 14 might exist in living matter. Libby and his team of scientists were able to publish a paper summarizing the first detection of radiocarbon in an organic sample.
It was also Mr. Libby was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in recognition of his efforts to develop radiocarbon dating. Discovery of Radiocarbon Dating accessed October 31, Sheridan Bowman, Radiocarbon Dating: Interpreting the Past , University of California Press.