C14 radiocarbon dating

AMS counts the quantity of C isotope is constantly formed in the upper atmosphere thanks to the effects of cosmic rays on nitrogen-14 atoms.

It is oxidised quickly and absorbed in great quantities by all living organisms - animal and plant, land and ocean dwelling alike.

It is presumed that the proportion of atmospheric C is the same today as it was in 1950 (10), (11) and that the half-life remains the same.

If a radioactivity level comes back as half of what would have been expected if the organism had died in 1950, then it is presumed to be 5,730 years before 1950.

The method developed in the 1940's and was a ground-breaking piece of research that would change dating methods forever. Libby calculated the rate of radioactive decay of the C isotope (4) in carbon black powder.

As a test, the team took samples of acacia wood from two Egyptian Pharaohs and dated them; the results came back to within what was then a reasonable range: 2800BC /- 250 years whereas the earlier independent dates (largely the dendrochronology records) were 2625 /- 75 years (3), (5).

This new method was based on gas and liquid scintillation counting and these methods are still used today, having been demonstrated as more accurate than Libby's original method (3).

Willard Libby would receive a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1960.

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In 1979, Desmond Clark said of the method “we would still be foundering in a sea of imprecisions sometime bred of inspired guesswork but more often of imaginative speculation” (3).Typically, a Master's Degree in chemistry is required because of the extensive lab work.Increasingly though, students are learning about the principles of radiocarbon dates in archaeology, palaeontology and climate science degrees and can combine cross-disciplinary studies.date of organic material - but an approximate age, usually within a range of a few years either way.The other method is “Relative Dating” which gives an order of events without giving an exact age (1): typically artefact typology or the study of the sequence of the evolution of fossils.

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