Radiometric Dating

History, anthropology, and archaeology are three distinct but closely related bodies of knowledge that tell man of his present by virtue of his past. Historians can tell what cultures thrived in different regions and when they disintegrated. Archaeologists, on the other hand, provide proof of authenticity of a certain artifact or debunk historical or anthropological findings. Studying the material remains of past human life and activities may not seem important or exciting to the average Joe unlike the biological sciences. It is in knowing what made past cultures cease to exist that could provide the key in making sure that history does not repeat itself.

Over the years, archaeology has uncovered information about past cultures that would have been left unknown had it not been with the help of such technologies as radiocarbon dating, dendrochronology , archaeomagnetic dating, fluoride dating, luminescence dating, and obsidian hydration analysis, among others. Radiocarbon dating has been around for more than 50 years and has revolutionized archaeology. Carbon 14 dating remains to be a powerful, dependable and widely applicable technique that is invaluable to archaeologists and other scientists.

How has radiocarbon dating changed archaeology?

The unstable and radioactive carbon 14, called radiocarbon, is a naturally occurring isotope of the element carbon. When a living thing dies, it stops interacting with the biosphere, and the carbon 14 in it remains unaffected by the biosphere but will naturally undergo decay. Decay of carbon 14 takes thousands of years, and it is this wonder of nature that forms the basis of radiocarbon dating and made this carbon 14 analysis a powerful tool in revealing the past. The process of radiocarbon dating starts with the analysis of the carbon 14 left in a sample. Calibration is then done to convert BP years into calendar years.

This information is then related to true historical dates. Before deciding on using carbon dating as an analytical method, an archaeologist must first make sure that the results of radiocarbon dating after calibration can provide the needed answers to the archaeological questions asked. The implication of what is represented by the carbon 14 activity of a sample must be considered.

The sample-context relationship is not always straightforward. Date of a sample pre-dates the context it is found. Some samples, like wood, already ceased interacting with the biosphere and have an apparent age at death and linking them to the age of the deposits around the sample would not be wholly accurate. There are also cases when the association between the sample and the deposit is not apparent or easily understood. Great care must be exercised when linking an event with the context and the context with the sample to be processed by radiocarbon dating.


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This involves inspection of a polished slice of a material to determine the density of "track" markings left in it by the spontaneous fission of uranium impurities. The uranium content of the sample has to be known, but that can be determined by placing a plastic film over the polished slice of the material, and bombarding it with slow neutrons. This causes induced fission of U, as opposed to the spontaneous fission of U.

The fission tracks produced by this process are recorded in the plastic film. The uranium content of the material can then be calculated from the number of tracks and the neutron flux.

Dating - the Radiocarbon Way

This scheme has application over a wide range of geologic dates. For dates up to a few million years micas , tektites glass fragments from volcanic eruptions , and meteorites are best used. Older materials can be dated using zircon , apatite , titanite , epidote and garnet which have a variable amount of uranium content. The technique has potential applications for detailing the thermal history of a deposit. The residence time of 36 Cl in the atmosphere is about 1 week. Thus, as an event marker of s water in soil and ground water, 36 Cl is also useful for dating waters less than 50 years before the present.

Luminescence dating methods are not radiometric dating methods in that they do not rely on abundances of isotopes to calculate age. Instead, they are a consequence of background radiation on certain minerals. Over time, ionizing radiation is absorbed by mineral grains in sediments and archaeological materials such as quartz and potassium feldspar.

The radiation causes charge to remain within the grains in structurally unstable "electron traps". Exposure to sunlight or heat releases these charges, effectively "bleaching" the sample and resetting the clock to zero. The trapped charge accumulates over time at a rate determined by the amount of background radiation at the location where the sample was buried.

Stimulating these mineral grains using either light optically stimulated luminescence or infrared stimulated luminescence dating or heat thermoluminescence dating causes a luminescence signal to be emitted as the stored unstable electron energy is released, the intensity of which varies depending on the amount of radiation absorbed during burial and specific properties of the mineral.

These methods can be used to date the age of a sediment layer, as layers deposited on top would prevent the grains from being "bleached" and reset by sunlight.

Radiocarbon Dating and Archaeology

Pottery shards can be dated to the last time they experienced significant heat, generally when they were fired in a kiln. Absolute radiometric dating requires a measurable fraction of parent nucleus to remain in the sample rock. For rocks dating back to the beginning of the solar system, this requires extremely long-lived parent isotopes, making measurement of such rocks' exact ages imprecise. To be able to distinguish the relative ages of rocks from such old material, and to get a better time resolution than that available from long-lived isotopes, short-lived isotopes that are no longer present in the rock can be used.

At the beginning of the solar system, there were several relatively short-lived radionuclides like 26 Al, 60 Fe, 53 Mn, and I present within the solar nebula. These radionuclides—possibly produced by the explosion of a supernova—are extinct today, but their decay products can be detected in very old material, such as that which constitutes meteorites.

Radiocarbon Dating

By measuring the decay products of extinct radionuclides with a mass spectrometer and using isochronplots, it is possible to determine relative ages of different events in the early history of the solar system. Dating methods based on extinct radionuclides can also be calibrated with the U-Pb method to give absolute ages. Thus both the approximate age and a high time resolution can be obtained. Generally a shorter half-life leads to a higher time resolution at the expense of timescale.

The iodine-xenon chronometer [32] is an isochron technique. Samples are exposed to neutrons in a nuclear reactor. This converts the only stable isotope of iodine I into Xe via neutron capture followed by beta decay of I. After irradiation, samples are heated in a series of steps and the xenon isotopic signature of the gas evolved in each step is analysed. Samples of a meteorite called Shallowater are usually included in the irradiation to monitor the conversion efficiency from I to Xe. This in turn corresponds to a difference in age of closure in the early solar system.

Another example of short-lived extinct radionuclide dating is the 26 Al — 26 Mg chronometer, which can be used to estimate the relative ages of chondrules. The 26 Al — 26 Mg chronometer gives an estimate of the time period for formation of primitive meteorites of only a few million years 1.


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  • From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Earth sciences portal Geophysics portal Physics portal. The disintegration products of uranium". American Journal of Science. Radiometric Dating and the Geological Time Scale: Circular Reasoning or Reliable Tools? In Roth, Etienne; Poty, Bernard. Nuclear Methods of Dating. Annual Review of Nuclear Science. Earth and Planetary Science Letters. The age of the earth. Radiogenic isotope geology 2nd ed.

    Principles and applications of geochemistry: Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: United States Geological Survey. Journal of African Earth Sciences. South African Journal of Geology. New Tools for Isotopic Analysis". For example, if an object touches some organic material like, say, your hand , it can test younger than it really is.

    Also, the larger the sample the better, although new techniques mean smaller samples can sometimes be tested more effectively. The data can be a little off particularly in younger artifacts, and anything older than about 50, years is pretty much too old to be tested because at that point the majority of the C has decayed to practically undetectable levels.

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    There's also still usually a wide window of time that an object can fall into. And lastly, the ratio of C to C in the atmosphere and hence the ratio in organic remains has fluctuated to a certain extent over the millennia, something that can lead to misleading discrepancies that need to be corrected for. Despite these limitations, radiocarbon dating will often get you a decent ballpark figure. While other methods of dating objects exist, radiocarbon dating has remained vital for most archaeologists. For example, it makes it possible to compare the ages of objects on a worldwide scale, allowing for indispensible comparisons across the globe.