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Desmond Clark (1979:7) observed that without radiocarbon dating "we would still be foundering in a sea of imprecisions sometime bred of inspired guesswork but more often of imaginative speculation." And as Colin Renfrew (1973) aptly noted over 30 years ago, the "Radiocarbon Revolution" transformed how archaeologists could interpret the past and track cultural changes through a period in human history where we see among other things the massive migration of peoples settling virtually every major region of the world, the transition from hunting and gathering to more intensive forms of food production, and the rise of city-states.
However, as with any dating technique there are limits to the kinds of things that can be satisfactorily dated, levels of precision and accuracy, age range constraints, and different levels of susceptibility to contamination.
Compared to conventional radiocarbon techniques such as Libby's solid carbon counting, the gas counting method popular in the mid-1950s, or liquid scintillation (LS) counting, AMS permitted the dating of much smaller sized samples with even greater precision.
Regardless of the particular 14C technique used, the value of this tool for archaeology has clearly been appreciated.
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.
Carbon dating is reliable within certain parameters but certainly not infallible.
When testing an object using radiocarbon dating, several factors have to be considered: First, carbon dating only works on matter that was once alive, and it only determines the approximate date of death for that sample.
After the death of the organism, processes of decay will return its carbon to the atmosphere, unless it is sequestered — for example in the form of coal.
This means that when an organism is alive, its ratio of C dating, or C-C dating.
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For example, a steel spearhead cannot be carbon dated, so archaeologists might perform testing on the wooden shaft it was attached to.