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During the lifetime of an organism, the amount of c14 in the tissues remains at an equilibrium since the loss (through radioactive decay) is balanced by the gain (through uptake via photosynthesis or consumption of organically fixed carbon).
However, when the organism dies, the amount of c14 declines such that the longer the time since death the lower the levels of c14 in organic tissue.
Since carbon is fundamental to life, occurring along with hydrogen in all organic compounds, the detection of such an isotope might form the basis for a method to establish the age of ancient materials.
Libby, a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Chicago, predicted that a radioactive isotope of carbon, known as carbon-14, would be found to occur in nature.
Working with several collaboraters, Libby established the natural occurrence of radiocarbon by detecting its radioactivity in methane from the Baltimore sewer.
In contrast, methane made from petroleum products had no measurable radioactivity.
In contrast to relative dating techniques whereby artifacts were simply designated as "older" or "younger" than other cultural remains based on the presence of fossils or stratigraphic position, 14C dating provided an easy and increasingly accessible way for archaeologists to construct chronologies of human behavior and examine temporal changes through time at a finer scale than what had previously been possible.
In 1979, Desmond Clark said of the method “we would still be foundering in a sea of imprecisions sometime bred of inspired guesswork but more often of imaginative speculation” (3).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.In a stratigraphical context objects closer to the surface are more recent in time relative to items deeper in the ground.Although relative dating can work well in certain areas, several problems arise.