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Importance of Carbon Dating in Archaeology

Katy, TX

You've probably come across news reports about fascinating ancient artefacts: found all around the world. Have you ever wondered how archaeologists dated these priceless and ancient artefacts? They all use a popular technique known as radiocarbon dating. This technique uses the properties of radiocarbon, a radioactive isotope of carbon, to determine the age of an object.

bone, carbon dating, age, dating
Examining a bone

Radiocarbon dating commonly referred to as carbon-14 dating and carbon dating is a breakthrough in the study of the Earth's history. Through the use of this method, researchers can uncover information about past civilizations, the Earth's climate, and Earth's changes. Moreover, the principle of radiocarbon dating is quite simple: everything around us absorbs carbon from the atmosphere and food sources, including a small amount of naturally radioactive carbon-14. For instance: plants and animals that die stop absorbing carbon, but the accumulated carbon continues to decay. A measurement of how much is left over gives us an estimate of how long something has been dead.

Lion, Carbon-14, carbon, life, age
The amount of carbon-14 remaining

On the contrary, it is not possible to date inorganic materials using radiocarbon analysis, and the process can be prohibitively expensive. It is also difficult to date samples older than 50,000 years due to the small amount of carbon-14. In recent decades, carbon-14 levels in the atmosphere have been changed drastically by the burning of fossil fuels and nuclear bomb tests.


Although radiocarbon dating has many limitations, it remains a vital tool for archaeologists around the globe to compare and understand the evolution of human culture and civilization. Recent advances in the field of carbon-14 dating have expanded the range of the technique up to 100,000 years, with accelerated techniques conducted with the help of mass spectrometers. Thus, radiocarbon dating remains one of the most significant tools an archaeologist can use to more accurately explain the evolution of a culture.


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