Archaeology Fieldwork

How reliable is radiocarbon dating?
Answered by Curiosity
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  1. Radiocarbon dating exists to help archaeologists determine in what time period a certain artifact was created. Before this process came about, researchers had to use a lot of guesswork to try to date things like bones and fossils, sometimes comparing artifacts to those nearby. Soon after World War II, scientist Willard F. Libby came up with radiocarbon dating, in which archaeologists measure the amount of carbon-14 (which is no longer absorbed after death) compared to the amount of carbon-12 in an object to determine its approximate age. The missing amount of carbon-14 can determine how long the object has been in decay, dating it to a specific age [source: Archaeology Expert].

    Radiocarbon dating, while helpful in determining age, isn't entirely reliable. For example, it can be hard to get good estimates if artifacts are too small, or very young or very old. Objects older than about 50,000 years usually can't be tested accurately, because the carbon-14 levels have decayed beyond recognition. Radiocarbon dating, which can only be used on organic remains, is also sometimes inaccurate because of fluctuations in the balance between atmospheric carbon-14 and carbon-12 over the millennia. This can be affected by an organism's specific environment or its diet [source: NDT Resource Center]. Then there's the issue of contamination -- archaeologists have to be very careful they do not contaminate specimens with "younger" carbon from their hands or bodies.

    Newer techniques in radiocarbon dating are attempting to remedy some of these issues; for example, it's now easier to test smaller objects than before. Scientists usually take extreme care to keep their hands off artifacts in order to avoid contamination. And while it may seem limiting that the process only works on organic objects, think about all that includes: wood, charcoal, shells, bones, peat and various carbonate deposits [source: NDT Resource Center].

    Radiocarbon Qa4
    (David McNew/Getty Images)

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