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Radiocarbon Dating in Environmental Archaeology
   overview | collecting samples | calibrating practice | 14C data tables

Project Background & Assignment

Radiocarbon dating

"[t]hose involved in radiocarbon dating should be alert to the various possible sources of error and recognize that the precision quoted on a date may be quite unrealistic if the error sources have not been investigated in detail."

-- Pearson (1979:21)

Goals of this Module:

  • examine the process of radiocarbon dating in archaeology;
  • learn how to properly calibrate radiocarbon dates using different datasets and software packages; and
  • explore the advantages and limitations of radiocarbon dating.
  • interpret the distribution of radiocarbon dates from sites on two different islands.


After reading the materials and working through the exercises provided on this site... you will calibrate a set of hypothetical radiocarbon dates. For this assignment you must:

  • correctly calibrate the dates listed in Tables 1 and 2. Be sure to include the appropriate reservoir effects if necessary and explain why you used them or not.
  • include the probability distributions as appropriate.
  • To which labs were the radiocarbon samples sent? Go to to find out and fill in the blanks on the tables.
  • provide graphs for each of the dates you calibrate (only necessary to do in cal. BC/AD).

Next, answer the following questions in report form. Be sure to turn in your report following the standard format for the class which is typed, double-spaced, 1" margins on each side, and 12 point Times New Roman font.


  1. Hypothetically, suppose that on New Zealand, marine foods contributed to 30% of the overall diet of humans and 50% on Trinidad. How would the calibration of human bone dates differ if you calibrated these samples as terrestrial versus that of a marine %? Please show your work and provide relevant graphs to compare with your previous calibrations.
  2. How can contextual information about the site help archaeologists to decide which samples to date?
  3. Provide eight (8) different reasons why a sample submitted for radiocarbon dated might prove to be erroneous?
  4. On New Zealand, how do the dates match up for each site and/or context when correctly dated? If they don't what are some reasons why this might have happened?
  5. On Trinidad, how do the dates match up for each site and/or context when correctly dated? If they don't what are some reasons why this might have happened?

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© The photographs and data presented in this module are copyrighted and may not be used without explicit permission. All information was collected as part of the Carriacou Archaeological Field Project, directed by Scott M. Fitzpatrick (NC State University), Quetta Kaye (University College London), and Michiel Kappers (In-Terris, The Netherlands).



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