Carbon dating reference advice column dating

During the lifetime of an organism, the amount of c14 in the tissues remains at an equilibrium since the loss (through radioactive decay) is balanced by the gain (through uptake via photosynthesis or consumption of organically fixed carbon).However, when the organism dies, the amount of c14 declines such that the longer the time since death the lower the levels of c14 in organic tissue.

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In a stratigraphical context objects closer to the surface are more recent in time relative to items deeper in the ground.

Although relative dating can work well in certain areas, several problems arise.

Before Present (BP) years is a time scale used mainly in geology and other scientific disciplines to specify when events occurred in the past.

Because the "present" time changes, standard practice is to use 1 January 1950 as the commencement date of the age scale, reflecting the fact that radiocarbon dating became practical in the 1950s.

The ensuing atomic interactions create a steady supply of c14 that rapidly diffuses throughout the atmosphere.

Plants take up c14 along with other carbon isotopes during photosynthesis in the proportions that occur in the atmosphere; animals acquire c14 by eating the plants (or other animals).

When it comes to dating archaeological samples, several timescale problems arise.

For example, Christian time counts the birth of Christ as the beginning, AD 1 (Anno Domini); everything that occurred before Christ is counted backwards from AD as BC (Before Christ).

The Greeks consider the first Olympic Games as the beginning or 776 BC.

The Muslims count the Prophet’s departure from Mecca, or the Hegira, as their beginning at AD 662.

Radiocarbon decays slowly in a living organism, and the amount lost is continually replenished as long as the organism takes in air or food.

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