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Desmond Clark (1979:7) observed that without radiocarbon dating "we would still be foundering in a sea of imprecisions sometime bred of inspired guesswork but more often of imaginative speculation." And as Colin Renfrew (1973) aptly noted over 30 years ago, the "Radiocarbon Revolution" transformed how archaeologists could interpret the past and track cultural changes through a period in human history where we see among other things the massive migration of peoples settling virtually every major region of the world, the transition from hunting and gathering to more intensive forms of food production, and the rise of city-states.
By comparing the amount of carbon 14 remaining in a sample with a modern standard, we can determine when the organism died, as for example, when a shellfish was collected or a tree cut down.
Here’s an example using the simplest atom, hydrogen. Carbon-14 is an unstable isotope of carbon that will eventually decay at a known rate to become carbon-12.
Radiocarbon dating uses isotopes of the element carbon. Cosmic rays – high-energy particles from beyond the solar system – bombard Earth’s upper atmosphere continually, in the process creating the unstable carbon-14. Because it’s unstable, carbon-14 will eventually decay back to carbon-12 isotopes.
Shells of known age collected prior to nuclear testing have also been dated ( to ascertain the effects of old carbon (i.e., local marine reservoir effects). However, the most common materials dated by archaeologists are wood charcoal, shell, and bone. In brief, radiocarbon dating measures the amount of radioactive carbon 14 (14C) in a sample.
Radiocarbon analyses are carried out at specialized laboratories around the world (see a list of labs at: When a biological organism dies, the radioactive carbon in its body begins to break down or decay.