This is a major concern for bone dates where pretreatment procedures must be employed to isolate protein or a specific amino acid such as hydroxyproline known to occur almost exclusively in bone collagen to ensure accurate age assessments of bone specimens.
To help resolve these issues, radiocarbon laboratories have conducted inter-laboratory comparison exercises see for example, the August special issue of Radiocarbondevised rigorous pretreatment procedures to remove any carbon-containing compounds unrelated to the actual sample being dated, and developed calibration methods for terrestrial and marine carbon.
Shells of known age collected prior to nuclear testing have also been dated What can we date with radiocarbon dating?
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.
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.
Regardless of the particular 14C technique used, the value of this tool for archaeology has clearly been appreciated.
Radiocarbon dating works by comparing the three different isotopes of carbon.
Isotopes of a particular element have the same number of protons in their nucleus, but different numbers of neutrons.While the lighter isotopes 12C and 13C are stable, the heaviest isotope 14C radiocarbon is radioactive.This means its nucleus is so large that it is unstable. Most 14C is produced in the upper atmosphere where neutrons, which are produced by cosmic raysreact with 14N atoms.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.The introduction of "old" or "artificial" carbon into the atmosphere (i.e., the "Suess Effect" and "Atom Bomb Effect", respectively) can influence the ages of dates making them appear older or younger than they actually are.