Why is radiocarbon dating useful

His explanation was that the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere had varied over time by up to one percent.


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De Vries thought the variation might be explained by something connected with climate, such as episodes of turnover of ocean waters. Some speculated that such irregularities might be caused by variations in the Earth's magnetic field. A stronger field would tend to shield the planet from particles from the Sun, diverting them before they could reach the atmosphere to create carbon Another possibility was that the cause lay in the Sun itself.

De Vries had considered this hypothesis but thought it ad hoc and "not very attractive. In , Minze Stuiver suggested that longer-term solar variations might account for the inconsistent carbon dates. But his data were sketchy. Libby, for one, cast doubt on the idea, so subversive of the many dates his team had supposedly established with high accuracy. Suess and Stuiver finally pinned down the answer in by analyzing hundreds of wood samples dated from tree rings.

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The curve of carbon production showed undeniable variations, "wiggles" of a few percent on a timescale of a century or so. By the s, experts could date a speck almost too small to see and several tens of thousands of years old. Tracking carbon also proved highly useful in historical and contemporary studies of the global carbon budget, including the movement of carbon in the oceans and its complex travels within living ecosystems. It was particularly interesting that, as Stuiver had suspected, the carbon wiggles correlated with long-term changes in the number of sunspots.

Radiocarbon dating

Turning it around, Suess remarked that "the variations open up a fascinating opportunity to perceive changes in the solar activity during the past several thousand years. The carbon it contained at the time of death decays over a long period of time, and the radioactivity of the material decreases. The approximate time since the organism died can be worked out by measuring the amount of carbon left in its remains compared to the amount in living organisms.

Back to Radiation for life index. This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets CSS enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets CSS if you are able to do so. It is important that the radiocarbon scientists and archaeologists agree on the sampling strategy before starting the excavation so time, effort, and resources will not be wasted and meaningful result will be produced after the carbon dating process.

It must be stressed that archaeologists need to interact with radiocarbon laboratories first before excavation due to several factors. Laboratories have limitations in terms of the samples they can process for radiocarbon dating. Some labs, for example, do not date carbonates. Laboratories must also be consulted as to the required amount of sample that they ideally like to process as well as their preference with certain samples for carbon dating.

Other labs accept waterlogged wood while others prefer them dry at submission. Contaminants must not be introduced to the samples during collection and storing. Hydrocarbons, glue, biocides, polyethylene glycol or polyvinyl acetate PVA must not come in contact with samples for radiocarbon dating. Other potential contaminants include paper, cardboard, cotton wool, string and cigarette ash.

Samples must be stored in packaging materials that will protect them during transport and even during prolonged storage. Labels attached to the packaging materials must not fade or rub off easily.

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Glass containers can be used when storing radiocarbon dating samples, but they are susceptible to breakage and can be impractical when dealing with large samples. Aluminum containers with screw caps are safe, but it is still best to consult the radiocarbon laboratory for the best containers of carbon dating samples.


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  6. It is recommended that archaeologists, or any client in general, ask the laboratory if results have systematic or random errors. They should also ask details about the calibration used for conversion of BP years to calendar years. Clarify the costs involved in radiocarbon dating of samples.

    Dating advances

    Some labs charge more for samples that they do not regularly process. Radiocarbon dating takes time, and laboratories often have waiting lists so this factor must be considered. The carbon dating process is destructive, and labs usually advise their clients with regard to sample identification or labelling. Communication with clients also gives labs an idea of the possible types of contaminants in the excavation site. Knowing the type of contaminants also give radiocarbon scientists an idea on the pretreatment methods needed to be done before starting carbon dating.