Reliability of radiocarbon dating

Most archaeological items can’t be directly carbon dated, so their dating is based on testing done on nearby objects or materials.This makes the results subject to the researchers’ assumptions about those objects.Carbon dating is reliable within certain parameters but certainly not infallible.When testing an object using radiocarbon dating, several factors have to be considered: First, carbon dating only works on matter that was once alive, and it only determines the approximate date of death for that sample.Tiny variations within a particular sample become significant enough to skew results to the point of absurdity.

This provides good information, but it only indicates how long ago that piece of wood was cut from a living tree.

Contamination and repeatability are also factors that have to be considered with carbon dating.

A tiny amount of carbon contamination will greatly skew test results, so sample preparation is critical.

Modern effects such as fossil fuel burning and nuclear testing have also changed atmospheric carbon-14 levels and in turn change the “starting point” for a radiocarbon test.

All in all, setting the parameters of the carbon-14 test is more of an art than a science.

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