How radiocarbon dating works

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This has now been done for Bristlecone Pines in the U. A and waterlogged Oaks in Ireland and Germany, and Kauri in New Zealand to provide records extending back over the last 14,000 years.

For older periods we are able to use other records of with idependent age control to tell us about how radiocarbon changed in the past.

Further complications arise when the carbon in a sample has not taken a straightforward route from the atmosphere to the organism and thence to the measured sample.

Radiocarbon measurements are always reported in terms of years `before present' (BP).

The information from measurements on tree rings and other samples of known age (including speleothems, marine corals and samples from sedimentary records with independent dating) are all compiled into calibration curves by the Int Cal group.

These are the basis for the calibrations performed by the programs like CALIB and Ox Cal. Calibration of radiocarbon determinations is in principle very simple.

For radiocarbon dating to be possible, the material must once have been part of a living organism.

This means that things like stone, metal and pottery cannot usually be directly dated by this means unless there is some organic material embedded or left as a residue.

Since the calendar age of the tree rings is known, this then tells you the age of your sample.

The left-hand axis shows radiocarbon concentration expressed in years `before present' and the bottom axis shows calendar years (derived from the tree ring data).

The pair of blue curves show the radiocarbon measurements on the tree rings (plus and minus one standard deviation) and the red curve on the left indicates the radiocarbon concentration in the sample.

By using these widths, it is possible to compare the tree rings in a dead tree to those in a tree that is still growing in the same region.

By using dead trees of different but overlapping ages, you can build up a library of tree rings of different calendar ages.

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