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Shell may succumb to isotopic exchange if it interacts with carbon from percolating ground acids or recrystallization when shell aragonite transforms to calcite and involves the exchange of modern calcite.
The surrounding environment can also influence radiocarbon ages.
Alone, or in concert, these factors can lead to inaccuracies and misinterpretations by archaeologists without proper investigation of the potential problems associated with sampling and dating.
To help resolve these issues, radiocarbon laboratories have conducted inter-laboratory comparison exercises (see for example, the August 2003 special issue of Radiocarbon), devised rigorous pretreatment procedures to remove any carbon-containing compounds unrelated to the actual sample being dated, and developed calibration methods for terrestrial and marine carbon. Radiocarbon dating can be used on either organic or inorganic carbonate materials.
Professor of Archaeological Science and Deputy Director of the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit Tom Higham explains the science behind radiocarbon dating and how he has refined this dating technique for archaeological research on ancient bones.
In this video, Tom says, “Radiocarbon has a half-life of 5,568 years”, yet in other places on the Science Learning Hub, we refer to radiocarbon as having a half-life of 5,730 years (this is known as the ' Cambridge half-life'). Basically, calculating radiocarbon ages requires the value of the half-life for carbon-14.
Learn about developments in radiocarbon dating in our Athol Rafter heritage scientist timeline PROF TOM HIGHAM My expertise is in dating and archaeological dating using radiocarbon.
So when you get down to 30,000 years ago, you’ve got about 3% of the amount of radiocarbon that you’ve got in the present day, just 3%.
Nearly a decade after Willard Libby’s initial work to develop this method, the half-life was revised from 5,568 to 5,730 years.
This meant that many calculated dates in papers published prior to this were incorrect.
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.
Shells of known age collected prior to nuclear testing have also been dated ( to ascertain the effects of old carbon (i.e., local marine reservoir effects). However, the most common materials dated by archaeologists are wood charcoal, shell, and bone. In brief, radiocarbon dating measures the amount of radioactive carbon 14 (14C) in a sample.