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Radiocarbon

ARE RADIOCARBON DATINGS TO BE TRUSTED?

The most popular method claiming the capability of dating ancient artifacts independently is the radiocarbon method. However, the accumulation of radiocarbon datings has exposed the difficulty of the method’s application.

The intensity of atmospheric radiation is affected by many cosmic factors. The radioactive carbon isotope production rate should also vary, and one needs to find a method that would take these variations into account. Apart from that, over the period when highways and industrial plants have been introduced by the civilization, a gigantic amount of carbon from the combustion of wood, coal, oil, turf, oil shales, and their products emanated into the atmosphere.

How does this atmospheric carbon affect the production of its radioactive isotope? In order to get veracious datings, one has to introduce complex corrections into calculations that reflect the changes in the content of the atmosphere over the last millennium. This issue, as well as a number of technical difficulties, casts a shadow of doubt over the precision of many radiocarbon datings.

W. F. Libby, the author of the method, wasn’t a historian and did not question the veracity of the Scaligerian datings, which had been used for the justification of his method. W. F. Libby had a priori been certain of the veracity of Scaligerian datings.

He wrote that they “…had no contradictions with the historians in what concerned ancient Rome and Egypt. We did not conduct anything in the way of extensive research related to this epoch [sic! ], since its chronology, in general, is known to the archaeologists a lot better than whatever our methods could estimate, so the archaeologists were doing us a favor providing specimens [which are actually destroyed, being burned in the radiocarbon measurement process”.

This confession of Libby’s tells us a lot since the deficiencies of Scaligerian chronology directly concern the regions and epochs that he and his team “did not research extensively enough.”

In what concerns the several reference measurements that were conducted on ancient artifacts, the situation is as follows. The radiocarbon dating of the Egyptian collection of J. H. Breasted “suddenly discovered the third object that we analyzed to have been contemporary,” according to Libby. “It was one of the findings… considered… to belong to the V dynasty [2563-2423 b.c., or roughly four millennia before our time]. It has proved a heavy blow indeed”.

Why could it have been such a blow? The physicists appear to have restored the veracious dating of the Egyptian specimen, proving the old one to have been wrong. What’s the problem with that?

The problem is, of course, the simple fact that any such dating would prove a menace to the Scaligerian chronology. Carrying on in that vein would lead Libby to compromise the entire history of ancient Egypt. The specimen that Libby had been careless enough to have claimed as modern had to be called a forgery and disposed of, which is only natural since the archaeologists could not have possibly let the heretical thought of the XVI-XVII century a.d. (considering the method’s precision of +/-1000 years) origin of the “ancient” Egyptian finding enter their minds.

The evidence that the proponents of the method used for proving the veracity of their method is rather insubstantial, with all the indications being indirect, the calculations imprecise, and the interpretation ambiguous, the main argument being the radiocarbon datings of the specimens whose age is known for certain is used for reference… Every time referential measurements are mentioned, everybody quotes the results of the first referential datings that were obtained for a very limited number of specimens
[sic!]”

Libby recognizes the absence of substantial referential statistics. Together with the millenarian dating deviations mentioned above (explained as a consequence of a series of forgeries), we may thus question the very validity of the method as used for dating specimens belonging to the period that we’re interested in, covering the two millennia preceding our century. This discussion does not concern the applicability of the method for geological purposes, however, where millenarian deviations are considered insubstantial.

W. F. Libby writes that “there was no deficiency in materials belonging to the epoch preceding ours by 3700 years for checking the precision and the dependability of the method”. However, there is nothing here to compare radiocarbon datings to, since there are no dated written documents dating from those epochs. Libby also informs us that his historian acquaintances “are perfectly certain of the veracity of the datings referring to the last 3750 years, however, their certainty does not spread as far as the
events that precede this era”.

In other words, the radiocarbon method has been used most extensively for a period of time that doesn’t allow the verification of the results by any other independent method, which makes life a lot easier for historians.

Could it be that the errors of the method are rather insubstantial and allow for an approximate dating of the specimens belonging to the last two or three millennia?
The state of affairs appears to be a graver one. The errors of radiocarbon dating are too great and too chaotic. They can amount to several millennia in what concerns contemporary and medieval objects.

Bill Bryson adds his grain of salt

Chicago in the 1940s was the place to be, Willard Libby was in the process of inventing radiocarbon dating allowing scientists to get an accurate reading of the age of bones and other organic remains something they had never been able to do before up to this time the oldest reliable dates went back no further than the first dynasty in Egypt about 3000 BC no one could confidently say for instance when the last ice sheets had retreated or at what time in the past the cro-magnon people had decorated the caves of Lascaux in France Libby’s idea was so useful that to historians he would be awarded by historians a Nobel prize for it in 1960  it was based on the realization that all living things have within them an isotope of carbon called carbon which begins to decay at a measurable rate the instant they die.

Carbon 14 has a half-life that is the time it takes for half of any sample to disappear of about 5 600 years so by working out how much of a given sample of carbon had decayed Libby could get a good fix on the age of an object though only up to a point after eight half-lives only 0.39 percent of the original radioactive carbon remains which is too little to make a reliable measurement, so radiocarbon dating works only for objects up to 40 000 or so years old.

Just as the technique was becoming widespread certain flaws within it became apparent. To begin with, it was discovered that one of the basic components of Libby’s formula known as the decay constant was out by about three percent by this time, however, thousands of measurements had been taken throughout the world, therefore rather than redate every one, scientists decided to keep the inaccurate constant. Thus Tim Flannery notes every raw radiocarbon date you read today is given as too young by around three percent the problems didn’t quite stop there.

It was also quickly discovered that carbon 14 samples can be easily contaminated with carbon from other sources a tiny scrap of vegetable matter, for instance, that has been collected with a sample and not noticed, albeit for younger samples those under 20 000 years or so slight contamination does not always matter so much but for older samples, it can be a serious problem because so few remaining atoms are being counted.

In the first instance, to borrow from Flannery is like miscounting by a dollar when counting to a thousand in the second it is more like miscounting by a dollar when you only have two dollars to count. Libby’s method was also based on the assumption that the amount of carbon 14 in the atmosphere and the rate at which it has been absorbed by living things has been consistent throughout history, in fact, it hasn’t been.

We now know that the volume of atmospheric carbon 14 varies depending on how well or not the earth’s magnetism is deflecting cosmic rays and that can vary significantly over time, this means that some carbon 14 dates are more dubious than others.  Among the more dubious are dates just around the time that people first came to the Americas which is one of the reasons the matter is so perennially in dispute.

Finally and perhaps a little unexpectedly readings can be thrown out by seemingly unrelated external factors such as the diets of those whose bones are being tested one recent case involved the long-running debate over whether syphilis originated in the new world or the old. Archaeologists in hull found that monks in a monastery graveyard had suffered from syphilis but the initial conclusion that the monks had done so before Columbus’s voyage was cast into doubt by the realization that they had eaten a lot of fish which could make their bones appear to be older than in fact they were. The monks may well have had syphilis but how it got to them and when remained tantalizingly unresolved.

Has history been tampered with?

Refutation of the article from Wikipedia

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