A form of radiometric dating used to determine the age of organic remains in ancient objects, such as archaeological specimens, on the basis of the half-life of carbon-14 and a comparison between the ratio of carbon-12 to carbon-14 in a sample of the remains to the known ratio in living organisms. A technique for measuring the age of organic remains based on the rate of decay of carbon 14.
The carbon 14 present in an organism at the time of its death decays at a steady rate, and so the age of the remains can be calculated from the amount of carbon 14 that is left. The cells of all living things contain carbon atoms that they take in from their environment.
Back in the 1940s, the American chemist Willard Libby used this fact to determine the ages of organisms long dead.
Carbon 14 is continually being created in the Earth's atmosphere by the interaction of nitrogen and gamma rays from outer space.Since atmospheric carbon 14 arises at about the same rate that the atom decays, the Earth's levels of carbon 14 have remained constant.In living organisms, which are always taking in carbon, the levels of carbon 14 likewise stay constant.But in a dead organism, no new carbon is coming in, and its carbon 14 gradually begins to decay.So by measuring carbon 14 levels in an organism that died long ago, researchers can figure out when it died.
The procedure of radiocarbon dating can be used for remains that are up to 50,000 years old.
The Radiocarbon Revolution Since its development by Willard Libby in the 1940s, radiocarbon (14C) dating has become one of the most essential tools in archaeology.
Radiocarbon dating was the first chronometric technique widely available to archaeologists and was especially useful because it allowed researchers to directly date the panoply of organic remains often found in archaeological sites including artifacts made from bone, shell, wood, and other carbon based materials.
In contrast to relative dating techniques whereby artifacts were simply designated as "older" or "younger" than other cultural remains based on the presence of fossils or stratigraphic position, 14C dating provided an easy and increasingly accessible way for archaeologists to construct chronologies of human behavior and examine temporal changes through time at a finer scale than what had previously been possible.
The application of Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) for radiocarbon dating in the late 1970s was also a major achievement.
Compared to conventional radiocarbon techniques such as Libby's solid carbon counting, the gas counting method popular in the mid-1950s, or liquid scintillation (LS) counting, AMS permitted the dating of much smaller sized samples with even greater precision.