Carbon dating dead sea scrolls
The C14 technique has been and continues to be applied and used in many, many different fields including hydrology, atmospheric science, oceanography, geology, palaeoclimatology, archaeology and biomedicine.There are three principal isotopes of carbon which occur naturally - C12, C13 (both stable) and C14 (unstable or radioactive).14C also enters the Earth's oceans in an atmospheric exchange and as dissolved carbonate (the entire 14C inventory is termed the carbon exchange reservoir (Aitken, 1990)).Plants and animals which utilise carbon in biological foodchains take up 14C during their lifetimes.They exist in equilibrium with the C14 concentration of the atmosphere, that is, the numbers of C14 atoms and non-radioactive carbon atoms stays approximately the same over time.As soon as a plant or animal dies, they cease the metabolic function of carbon uptake; there is no replenishment of radioactive carbon, only decay.The radiocarbon method was developed by a team of scientists led by the late Professor Willard F.Libby of the University of Chicago in immediate post-WW2 years.
At about 50 - 60 000 years, then, the limit of the technique is reached (beyond this time, other radiometric techniques must be used for dating).
"Everything which has come down to us from heathendom is wrapped in a thick fog; it belongs to a space of time we cannot measure.
We know that it is older than Christendom, but whether by a couple of years or a couple of centuries, or even by more than a millenium, we can do no more than guess." [Rasmus Nyerup, (Danish antiquarian), 1802 (in Trigger, 19)].
These isotopes are present in the following amounts C12 - 98.89%, C13 - 1.11% and C14 - 0.00000000010%.
Thus, one carbon 14 atom exists in nature for every 1,000,000,000,000 C12 atoms in living material.
There is a useful diagrammatic representation of this process given here Libby, Anderson and Arnold (1949) were the first to measure the rate of this decay.