In , the American chemist Bertram Boltwood — proposed that rocks containing radioactive uranium could be dated by measuring the amount of lead in the sample. This was because uranium, as it underwent radioactive decay , would transmute into lead over a long span of time. Thus, the greater the amount of lead, the older the rock. Boltwood used this method, called radioactive dating , to obtain a very accurate measurement of the age of Earth.
While the uranium-lead dating method was limited being only applicable to samples containing uranium , it was proved to scientists that radioactive dating was both possible and reliable. The first method for dating organic objects such as the remains of plants and animals was developed by another American chemist, Willard Libby — He became intrigued by carbon — 14, a radioactive isotope of carbon. Carbon has isotopes with atomic weights between 9 and The most abundant isotope in nature is carbon — 12, followed in abundance by carbon — Among the less abundant isotopes is carbon — 14, which is produced in small quantities in the earth 's atmosphere through interactions involving cosmic rays.
In any living organism, the relative concentration of carbon — 14 is the same as it is in the atmosphere because of the interchange of this isotope between the organism and the air. This carbon — 14 cycles through an organism while it is alive, but once it dies, the organism accumulates no additional carbon — Whatever carbon — 14 was present at the time of the organism's death begins to decay to nitrogen — 14 by emitting radiation in a process known as beta decay.
The difference between the concentration of carbon — 14 in the material to be dated and the concentration in the atmosphere provides a basis for estimating the age of a specimen, given that the rate of decay of carbon — 14 is well known. The length of time required for one-half of the unstable carbon — 14 nuclei to decay i. Libby began testing his carbon — 14 dating procedure by dating objects whose ages were already known, such as samples from Egyptian tombs. After years only half remains. After another years only a quarter remains. This process, which continues until no 14 C remains, is the basis of carbon dating.
A sample in which 14 C is no longer detectable is said to be "radiocarbon dead.
They are derived from biomass that initially contained atmospheric levels of 14 C. But the transformation of sedimentary organic debris into oil or woody plants into coal is so slow that even the youngest deposits are radiocarbon dead. The abundance of 14 C in an organic molecule thus provides information about the source of its carbon.
If 14 C is present at atmospheric levels, the molecule must derive from a recent plant product. The pathway from the plant to the molecule may have been indirect or lengthy, involving multiple physical, chemical, and biological processes.
Levels of 14 C are affected significantly only by the passage of time. If a molecule contains no detectable 14 C it must derive from a petrochemical feedstock or from some other ancient source. Intermediate levels of 14 C can represent either mixtures of modern and dead carbon or carbon that was fixed from the atmosphere less than 50, years ago. 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.
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.
Radiocarbon dating is a method for determining the age of an object containing organic material by using the properties of radiocarbon, a radioactive isotope of. Radiocarbon dating is a method that provides objective age estimates for carbon- based materials that originated from living organisms. An age could be.
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. 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. 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.
Now researchers could accurately calculate the age of any object made of organic materials by observing how much of a certain form of carbon remained, and then calculating backwards to determine when the plant or animal that the material came from had died. Using the same techniques to measure 14 C content, we can examine ocean circulation and trace the movement of drugs around the body. Carbon dating Carbon dating is a technique used to determine the approximate age of once-living materials. The level of atmospheric 14 C is not constant. This process, which continues until no 14 C remains, is the basis of carbon dating. Both 13 C and 14 C are present in nature.
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.