In addition, samples need to be thoroughly cleaned to remove carbon contamination from glues and soil before dating.
This is particularly important for very old samples.
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Radiocarbon dates are presented in two ways because of this complication.
The uncalibrated date is given with the unit BP (radiocarbon years before 1950).
Isotopes of a particular element have the same number of protons in their nucleus, but different numbers of neutrons.
This means that although they are very similar chemically, they have different masses.
Luckily, we can measure these fluctuations in samples that are dated by other methods.
Tree rings can be counted and their radiocarbon content measured.
The calibrated date is also presented, either in BC or AD or with the unit cal BP (calibrated before present - before 1950).
The calibrated date is our “best estimate” of the sample’s actual age, but we need to be able to return to old dates and recalibrate them because new research is continually used to update the calibration curve.
Professor Willard Libby produced the first radiocarbon dates in 1949 and was later awarded the Nobel Prize for his efforts.