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British Broadcasting Corporation Home. Radio carbon dating determines the age of ancient objects by means of measuring the amount of carbon there is left in an object.
Inhe won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. This is now the most widely used method of age estimation in the field of archaeology. Certain chemical elements have more than one type of atom.
Different atoms of the same element are called isotopes. Carbon has three main isotopes. They are carbon, carbon and carbon Carbon is radioactive and it is this radioactivity which is used to measure age. Radioactive atoms decay into stable atoms by a simple mathematical process. Half of the available atoms will change in a given period of time, known as the half-life.
For instance, if atoms in the year had a half-life of ten years, then in there would be left.
Inthere would be left, and in there would be left. By counting how many carbon atoms in any object with carbon in it, we can work out how old the object is - or how long ago it died.
So we only have to know two things, the half-life of carbon and how many carbon atoms the object had before it died. The half-life of carbon is 5, years. However knowing how many carbon atoms something had before it died can only be guessed at. The assumption is that the proportion of carbon in any living organism is constant. It can be deduced then that today's readings would be the same as those many years ago.
When a particular fossil was alive, it had the same amount of carbon as the same living organism today.
The fact that carbon has a half-life of 5, years helps archaeologists date artefacts. Dates derived from carbon samples can be carried back to about 50, years. Potassium or uranium isotopes which have much longer half-lives, are used to date very ancient geological events that have to be measured in millions or billions of years.
Search term:. This is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets CSS enabled. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets CSS if you are Carbon dating history definition to do so. This has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about archiving. The Story of Carbon Dating. On this How it works options Print this. How it works Certain chemical elements have more than one type of atom.
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