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From these records a “calibration curve” can be built (see figure 2, below).

A huge amount of work is currently underway to extend and improve the calibration curve.

Rachel Wood does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Radiocarbon dating has transformed our understanding of the past 50,000 years.

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.

However, as with any dating technique there are limits to the kinds of things that can be satisfactorily dated, levels of precision and accuracy, age range constraints, and different levels of susceptibility to contamination.

Compared to conventional radiocarbon techniques such as Libby's solid carbon counting, the gas counting method popular in the mid-1950s, or liquid scintillation (LS) counting, AMS permitted the dating of much smaller sized samples with even greater precision.

The application of Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) for radiocarbon dating in the late 1970s was also a major achievement.

Radiocarbon dating is especially good for determining the age of sites occupied within the last 26,000 years or so (but has the potential for sites over 50,000), can be used on carbon-based materials (organic or inorganic), and can be accurate to within ±30-50 years.

Probably the most important factor to consider when using radiocarbon dating is if external factors, whether through artificial contamination, animal disturbance, or human negligence, contributed to any errors in the determinations.

The Radiocarbon Revolution Since its development by Willard Libby in the 1940s, radiocarbon (14C) dating has become one of the most essential tools in archaeology.

Radiocarbon dating was the first chronometric technique widely available to archaeologists and was especially useful because it allowed researchers to directly date the panoply of organic remains often found in archaeological sites including artifacts made from bone, shell, wood, and other carbon based materials.

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.