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Archaeologist Sturt Manning and colleagues have revealed variations in the radiocarbon cycle at certain periods of time, affecting frequently cited standards used in archaeological and historical research relevant to the southern Levant region, which includes Israel, southern Jordan and Egypt.
These variations, or offsets, of up to 20 years in the calibration of precise radiocarbon dating could be related to climatic conditions.
Once an organism is dead, however, no new carbon is actively absorbed by its tissues, and its carbon 14 gradually decays.
Libby thus reasoned that by measuring carbon 14 levels in the remains of an organism that died long ago, one could estimate the time of its death.
Carbon 14 has a half-life of 5,780 years, and is continuously created in Earth's atmosphere through the interaction of nitrogen and gamma rays from outer space.
Because atmospheric carbon 14 arises at about the same rate that the atom decays, Earth's levels of carbon 14 have remained fairly constant.
But new research shows that commonly accepted radiocarbon dating standards can miss the mark -- calling into question historical timelines.
Accelerated mass spectrometry, or AMS, is more precise than standard radiocarbon dating and can be performed on smaller samples.
Learn more: Radiocarbon Dating is an "Archae Interactive" module from North Carolina State University.
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Manning, professor of archaeology at Cornell University and director of the Cornell Tree-Ring Laboratory, is the lead author of "Fluctuating Radiocarbon Offsets Observed in the Southern Levant and Implications for Archaeological Chronology Debates," published in the .