Bone dating methods

If archaeologists know how pottery styles, glazes, and techniques have changed over time they can date sites based on the ratio of different kinds of pottery. This also works with stone tools which are found abundantly at different sites and across long periods of time. Stratigraphic dating is based on the principle of depositional superposition of layers of sediments called strata. This principle presumes that the oldest layer of a stratigraphic sequence will be on the bottom and the most recent, or youngest, will be on the top.

The earliest-known hominids in East Africa are often found in very specific stratigraphic contexts that have implications for their relative dating. These strata are often most visible in canyons or gorges which are good sites to find and identify fossils. Understanding the geologic history of an area and the different strata is important to interpreting and understanding archaeological findings.


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The majority of chronometric dating methods are radiometric, which means they involve measuring the radioactive decay of a certain chemical isotope. They are called chronometric because they allow one to make a very accurate scientific estimate of the date of an object as expressed in years. They do not, however, give "absolute" dates because they merely provide a statistical probability that a given date falls within a certain range of age expressed in years.

Chronometric methods include radiocarbon, potassium-argon, fission-track, and thermoluminescence.

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The most commonly used chronometic method is radiocarbon analysis. It measures the decay of radioactive carbon 14C that has been absorbed from the atmosphere by a plant or animal prior to its death. Once the organism dies, the Carbon begins to decay at an extremely predictable rate. Once it dies, it ceases to acquire 14 C , but the 14 C within its biological material at that time will continue to decay, and so the ratio of 14 C to 12 C in its remains will gradually decrease.

The equation governing the decay of a radioactive isotope is: Measurement of N , the number of 14 C atoms currently in the sample, allows the calculation of t , the age of the sample, using the equation above. The above calculations make several assumptions, such as that the level of 14 C in the atmosphere has remained constant over time. The calculations involve several steps and include an intermediate value called the "radiocarbon age", which is the age in "radiocarbon years" of the sample: Calculating radiocarbon ages also requires the value of the half-life for 14 C.

Radiocarbon ages are still calculated using this half-life, and are known as "Conventional Radiocarbon Age". Since the calibration curve IntCal also reports past atmospheric 14 C concentration using this conventional age, any conventional ages calibrated against the IntCal curve will produce a correct calibrated age. When a date is quoted, the reader should be aware that if it is an uncalibrated date a term used for dates given in radiocarbon years it may differ substantially from the best estimate of the actual calendar date, both because it uses the wrong value for the half-life of 14 C , and because no correction calibration has been applied for the historical variation of 14 C in the atmosphere over time.

Carbon is distributed throughout the atmosphere, the biosphere, and the oceans; these are referred to collectively as the carbon exchange reservoir, [32] and each component is also referred to individually as a carbon exchange reservoir. The different elements of the carbon exchange reservoir vary in how much carbon they store, and in how long it takes for the 14 C generated by cosmic rays to fully mix with them. This affects the ratio of 14 C to 12 C in the different reservoirs, and hence the radiocarbon ages of samples that originated in each reservoir. There are several other possible sources of error that need to be considered.

The errors are of four general types:. To verify the accuracy of the method, several artefacts that were datable by other techniques were tested; the results of the testing were in reasonable agreement with the true ages of the objects. Over time, however, discrepancies began to appear between the known chronology for the oldest Egyptian dynasties and the radiocarbon dates of Egyptian artefacts. The question was resolved by the study of tree rings: Coal and oil began to be burned in large quantities during the 19th century.

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Dating an object from the early 20th century hence gives an apparent date older than the true date. For the same reason, 14 C concentrations in the neighbourhood of large cities are lower than the atmospheric average. This fossil fuel effect also known as the Suess effect, after Hans Suess, who first reported it in would only amount to a reduction of 0. A much larger effect comes from above-ground nuclear testing, which released large numbers of neutrons and created 14 C. From about until , when atmospheric nuclear testing was banned, it is estimated that several tonnes of 14 C were created.

The level has since dropped, as this bomb pulse or "bomb carbon" as it is sometimes called percolates into the rest of the reservoir. Photosynthesis is the primary process by which carbon moves from the atmosphere into living things. In photosynthetic pathways 12 C is absorbed slightly more easily than 13 C , which in turn is more easily absorbed than 14 C.

This effect is known as isotopic fractionation. At higher temperatures, CO 2 has poor solubility in water, which means there is less CO 2 available for the photosynthetic reactions. The enrichment of bone 13 C also implies that excreted material is depleted in 13 C relative to the diet. The carbon exchange between atmospheric CO 2 and carbonate at the ocean surface is also subject to fractionation, with 14 C in the atmosphere more likely than 12 C to dissolve in the ocean.

This increase in 14 C concentration almost exactly cancels out the decrease caused by the upwelling of water containing old, and hence 14 C depleted, carbon from the deep ocean, so that direct measurements of 14 C radiation are similar to measurements for the rest of the biosphere. Correcting for isotopic fractionation, as is done for all radiocarbon dates to allow comparison between results from different parts of the biosphere, gives an apparent age of about years for ocean surface water.

The CO 2 in the atmosphere transfers to the ocean by dissolving in the surface water as carbonate and bicarbonate ions; at the same time the carbonate ions in the water are returning to the air as CO 2. The deepest parts of the ocean mix very slowly with the surface waters, and the mixing is uneven. The main mechanism that brings deep water to the surface is upwelling, which is more common in regions closer to the equator. Upwelling is also influenced by factors such as the topography of the local ocean bottom and coastlines, the climate, and wind patterns.

Overall, the mixing of deep and surface waters takes far longer than the mixing of atmospheric CO 2 with the surface waters, and as a result water from some deep ocean areas has an apparent radiocarbon age of several thousand years. Upwelling mixes this "old" water with the surface water, giving the surface water an apparent age of about several hundred years after correcting for fractionation. The northern and southern hemispheres have atmospheric circulation systems that are sufficiently independent of each other that there is a noticeable time lag in mixing between the two.

Since the surface ocean is depleted in 14 C because of the marine effect, 14 C is removed from the southern atmosphere more quickly than in the north. For example, rivers that pass over limestone , which is mostly composed of calcium carbonate , will acquire carbonate ions. Similarly, groundwater can contain carbon derived from the rocks through which it has passed.

Volcanic eruptions eject large amounts of carbon into the air. Dormant volcanoes can also emit aged carbon. Any addition of carbon to a sample of a different age will cause the measured date to be inaccurate. Contamination with modern carbon causes a sample to appear to be younger than it really is: Samples for dating need to be converted into a form suitable for measuring the 14 C content; this can mean conversion to gaseous, liquid, or solid form, depending on the measurement technique to be used.

Before this can be done, the sample must be treated to remove any contamination and any unwanted constituents. Particularly for older samples, it may be useful to enrich the amount of 14 C in the sample before testing. This can be done with a thermal diffusion column. Once contamination has been removed, samples must be converted to a form suitable for the measuring technology to be used. For accelerator mass spectrometry , solid graphite targets are the most common, although gaseous CO 2 can also be used.

The quantity of material needed for testing depends on the sample type and the technology being used. There are two types of testing technology: For beta counters, a sample weighing at least 10 grams 0.

Radiocarbon dating

For decades after Libby performed the first radiocarbon dating experiments, the only way to measure the 14 C in a sample was to detect the radioactive decay of individual carbon atoms. Libby's first detector was a Geiger counter of his own design. He converted the carbon in his sample to lamp black soot and coated the inner surface of a cylinder with it. This cylinder was inserted into the counter in such a way that the counting wire was inside the sample cylinder, in order that there should be no material between the sample and the wire.

Libby's method was soon superseded by gas proportional counters , which were less affected by bomb carbon the additional 14 C created by nuclear weapons testing. These counters record bursts of ionization caused by the beta particles emitted by the decaying 14 C atoms; the bursts are proportional to the energy of the particle, so other sources of ionization, such as background radiation, can be identified and ignored.

The counters are surrounded by lead or steel shielding, to eliminate background radiation and to reduce the incidence of cosmic rays. In addition, anticoincidence detectors are used; these record events outside the counter, and any event recorded simultaneously both inside and outside the counter is regarded as an extraneous event and ignored. The other common technology used for measuring 14 C activity is liquid scintillation counting, which was invented in , but which had to wait until the early s, when efficient methods of benzene synthesis were developed, to become competitive with gas counting; after liquid counters became the more common technology choice for newly constructed dating laboratories.

The counters work by detecting flashes of light caused by the beta particles emitted by 14 C as they interact with a fluorescing agent added to the benzene. Like gas counters, liquid scintillation counters require shielding and anticoincidence counters. For both the gas proportional counter and liquid scintillation counter, what is measured is the number of beta particles detected in a given time period. This provides a value for the background radiation, which must be subtracted from the measured activity of the sample being dated to get the activity attributable solely to that sample's 14 C.

In addition, a sample with a standard activity is measured, to provide a baseline for comparison. The ions are accelerated and passed through a stripper, which removes several electrons so that the ions emerge with a positive charge. A particle detector then records the number of ions detected in the 14 C stream, but since the volume of 12 C and 13 C , needed for calibration is too great for individual ion detection, counts are determined by measuring the electric current created in a Faraday cup.

Any 14 C signal from the machine background blank is likely to be caused either by beams of ions that have not followed the expected path inside the detector, or by carbon hydrides such as 12 CH 2 or 13 CH. A 14 C signal from the process blank measures the amount of contamination introduced during the preparation of the sample. These measurements are used in the subsequent calculation of the age of the sample. The calculations to be performed on the measurements taken depend on the technology used, since beta counters measure the sample's radioactivity whereas AMS determines the ratio of the three different carbon isotopes in the sample.

To determine the age of a sample whose activity has been measured by beta counting, the ratio of its activity to the activity of the standard must be found. To determine this, a blank sample of old, or dead, carbon is measured, and a sample of known activity is measured. The additional samples allow errors such as background radiation and systematic errors in the laboratory setup to be detected and corrected for.

The results from AMS testing are in the form of ratios of 12 C , 13 C , and 14 C , which are used to calculate Fm, the "fraction modern".

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Both beta counting and AMS results have to be corrected for fractionation. The calculation uses 8,, the mean-life derived from Libby's half-life of 5, years, not 8,, the mean-life derived from the more accurate modern value of 5, years. AMS lab results with this sample will be inaccurate. Other potential contaminants that can be introduced to bone samples after excavation include biocides, polyvinyl acetate and polyethylene glycol conservation chemicals , cigarette ash, and labels or wrappers that are made of paper.

The effect of contamination on bone samples that were subjected to AMS dating is dependent on these factors: Limestone is of geological origin and will therefore be much older than any archaeological samples.

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The presence of humic and fulvic acids during AMS radiocarbon dating will lead to inaccurate results as well. Bones can also be exposed to modern sources of carbon due to plant rootlet intrusions. Modern sources of carbon can make the AMS carbon dating result of a bone younger than its true age. In general, infinite-age contaminants add considerable number of years to the true age of a bone sample, making it older than it is.

Modern carbon, on the other hand, makes the bone sample significantly younger than its true age. To prevent these inaccuracies, AMS labs perform pretreatment on all bone samples before subjecting them to AMS radiocarbon dating.