Truth about carbon dating
A UK scientist now warns that it will also make life increasingly difficult for archaeologists, forensic scientists, art experts, fraud and forgery detectives, and people who detect ivory poachers.
That is because the swelling volume of carbon pumped into the atmosphere from factory and power station chimneys and motor and airline exhausts is beginning to artificially “age” the planet’s atmosphere and bedevil attempts to use the technology known as carbon dating.
If emissions continue under the now-notorious “business as usual” scenario, then by 2050 a brand-new cotton shirt will have the same radiocarbon-dating age as the cloak worn by William the Conqueror when he invaded Britain in 1066.
But if, on the other hand, the world’s governments do move swiftly to curb fossil fuel emissions, then by 2050 a brand-new cotton shirt will seem only 100 years old.
For radiocarbon dating to be possible, the material must once have been part of a living organism.
This means that things like stone, metal and pottery cannot usually be directly dated by this means unless there is some organic material embedded or left as a residue.
In general it is always better to date a properly identified single entity (such as a cereal grain or an identified bone) rather than a mixture of unidentified organic remains.
Later called Ötzi the Iceman, small samples from his body were carbon dated by scientists.
The results showed that Ötzi died over 5000 years ago, sometime between 33 BC. It is found in the air in carbon dioxide molecules.
Forensic scientists exhuming a skeleton, Egyptologists investigating an ancient tomb, and fraud detectives concerned with suspected forgeries of Renaissance paintings could still possibly make allowances for that.
Radiocarbon dating is a 70-year-old technique now used with increasing precision to date anything once alive from the last 50,000 years.
Once an organism dies, it stops taking in carbon-14.