We know that it is older than Christendom, but whether by a couple of years or a couple of centuries, or even by more than a millenium, we can do no more than guess." [Rasmus Nyerup, (Danish antiquarian), 1802 (in Trigger, 19)].
The person who wrote these words lived in the 1800s, many years before archaeologists could accurately date materials from archaeological sites using scientific methods.
Welcome to the K12 section of the Radiocarbon WEBinfo site.
The aim here is to provide clear, understandable information relating to radiocarbon dating for the benefit of K12 students, as well as lay people who are not requiring detailed information about the method of radiocarbon dating itself.
Because the cosmic ray bombardment is fairly constant, there’s a near-constant level of carbon-14 to carbon-12 ratio in Earth’s atmosphere.
Organisms at the base of the food chain that photosynthesize – for example, plants and algae – use the carbon in Earth’s atmosphere.
They have the same ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12 as the atmosphere, and this same ratio is then carried up the food chain all the way to apex predators, like sharks.
It is not uncommon for a cosmic ray to collide with an atom in the atmosphere, creating a secondary cosmic ray in the form of an energetic neutron, and for these energetic neutrons to collide with nitrogen atoms.
When the neutron collides, a nitrogen-14 (seven protons, seven neutrons) atom turns into a carbon-14 atom (six protons, eight neutrons) and a hydrogen atom (one proton, zero neutrons).