The radiocarbon dating method was developed in the 1940's by Willard F. Libby and a team of scientists at the University of Chicago. It subsequently evolved into the most powerful method of dating late Pleistocene and Holocene artifacts and geologic events up to about 50,000 years in age.
Carbon Dating Carbon has unique properties that are essential for life on earth. Familiar to us as the black substance in charred wood, as diamonds, and the graphite in “lead” pencils, carbon comes in several forms, or isotopes. One rare form has atoms that are 14 times as heavy as hydrogen atoms: carbon-14, or 14C, or radiocarbon. Carbon-14 is made when cosmic rays knock neutrons out of atomic nuclei in the upper atmosphere. These displaced neutrons, now moving fast, hit ordinary nitrogen (14N) at lower altitudes, converting it into 14C. Unlike common carbon (12C), 14C is unstable and slowly decays, changing it back to nitrogen and releasing energy. This instability makes it radioactive.
We can take a sample of air, count how many 12C atoms there are for every 14C atom, and calculate the 14C/12C ratio. Because 14C is so well mixed up with 12C, we expect to find that this ratio is the same if we sample a leaf from a tree, or a part of your body. The C-14 within an organism is continually decaying into stable carbon isotopes, but since the organism is absorbing more C-14 during its life, the ratio of C-14 to C-12 remains about the same as the ratio in the atmosphere. When the organism dies, the ratio of C-14 within its carcass begins to gradually decrease. The rate of decrease is 1/2 the quantity at death every 5,730 years. That is the half-life of C-14. Obviously, this works only for things which were once living. It cannot be used to date volcanic rocks, for example. The rate of decay of 14C is such that half of an amount will convert back to 14N in 5,730 years (plus or minus 40 years). This is the “half-life.” So, in two half-lives, or 11,460 years, only one-quarter of that in living organisms at present, then it has a theoretical age of 11,460 years. Anything over about 50,000 years old, should theoretically have no detectable 14C left. That is why radiocarbon dating cannot give millions of years. In fact, if a sample contains 14C, it is good evidence that it is not millions of years old.
Because the decay rate is logarithmic, radiocarbon dating has significant upper and lower limits. It is not very accurate for fairly recent deposits. In recent deposits so little decay has occurred that the error factor (the standard deviation) may be larger than the date obtained. The practical upper limit is about 50,000 years, because so little C-14 remains after almost 9 half-lives that it may be hard to detect and obtain an accurate reading, regardless of the size of the sample.
The ratio of C-14 to C-12 in the atmosphere is not constant. Although it was originally thought that there has always been about the same ratio, radiocarbon samples taken and cross dated using other techniques like dendrochronology have shown that the ratio of C-14 to C-12 has varied significantly during the history of the Earth.
This variation is due to changes in the intensity of the cosmic radiation bombardment of the Earth, and changes in the effectiveness of the Van Allen belts and the upper atmosphere to deflect that bombardment. For example, because of the recent depletion of the ozone layer in the stratosphere, we can expect there to be more C-14 in the atmosphere today than there was 20-30 years ago. To compensate for this variation, dates obtained from radiocarbon laboratories are now corrected using standard calibration tables developed in the past 15-20 years.
When reading archaeological reports, be sure to check if the carbon-14 dates reported have been calibrated or not.
The major developments in the radiocarbon method up to the present day involve improvements in measurement techniques and research into the dating of different materials. Briefly, the initial solid carbon method developed by Libby and his collaborators was replaced with the Gas counting method in the 1950's. Liquid scintillation counting, utilising benzene, acetylene, ethanol, methanol etc, was developed at about the same time.
Today the vast majority of radiocarbon laboratories utilise these two methods of radiocarbon dating. Of major recent interest is the development of the Accelerator Mass Spectrometry method of direct C14 isotope counting.
In 1977, the first AMS measurements were conducted by teams at Rochester/Toronto and the General Ionex Corporation and soon after at the Universities of Simon Fraser and McMaster. The crucial advantage of the AMS method is that milligram sized samples are required for dating. Of great public interest has been the AMS dating of carbonacous material from prehistoric rock art sites, the Shroud of Turin and the Dead Sea Scrolls in the last few years.
The development of high-precision dating (up to ±2.0 per mille or ±16 yr) in a number of gas and liquid scintillation facilities has been of similar importance (laboratories at Belfast (N.Ireland), Seattle (US), Heidelberg (Ger), Pretoria (S.Africa), Groningen (Netherlands), La Jolla (US), Waikato (NZ) and Arizona (US) are generally accepted to have demonstrated radiocarbon measurements at high levels of precision).
The calibration research undertaken primarily at the Belfast and Seattle labs required that high levels of precision be obtained which has now resulted in the extensive calibration data now available. The development of small sample capabilities for LSC and Gas labs has likewise been an important development - samples as small as 100 mg are able to be dated to moderate precision on minigas counters with similar sample sizes needed using minivial technology in Liquid Scintillation Counting.
The radiocarbon dating method remains arguably the most dependable and widely applied dating technique for the late Pleistocene and Holocene periods.
Figure: The "Curve of Knowns"
The first acid test of the new method was based upon radiocarbon dating of known age samples primarily from Egypt (the dates are shown in the diagram by the red lines, each with a ±1 standard deviation included). The Egyptian King's name is given next to the date obtained. The theoretical curve was constructed using the half-life of 5568 years. The activity ratio relates to the carbon 14 activity ratio between the ancient samples and the modern activity. Each result was within the statistical range of the true historic date of each sample.
Other forms of Radioactive Dating
There are various other radiometric dating methods used today to give ages of millions or billions of years for rocks. These techniques, unlike carbon dating, mostly use the relative concentrations of parent and daughter products in radioactive decay chains. For example, potassium-40 decays to argon-40; uranium-238 decays to lead-206 via other elements like radium; uranium-235 decays to lead-207; rubidium-87 decays to strontium-87; etc. These techniques are applied to igneous rocks, and are normally seen as giving the time since solidification.
Rubidium occurs in nature as two isotopes: radioactive Rb-87 and stable Rb-85. Rb-87 decays with a half-life of 48.8 billion years to Sr-87. This half-life is so long that the Rb-Sr method is normally only used to date rocks that are older than about 100 million years.