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The development of radiocarbon dating has had a profound impact on archaeology.

In addition to permitting more accurate dating within archaeological sites than previous methods, it allows comparison of dates of events across great distances.

the average or expected time a given atom will survive before undergoing radioactive decay. The calculations involve several steps and include an intermediate value called the "radiocarbon age", which is the age in "radiocarbon years" of the sample: an age quoted in radiocarbon years means that no calibration curve has been used − the calculations for radiocarbon years assume that the , which for more than a decade after Libby's initial work was thought to be 5,568 years.

This was revised in the early 1960s to 5,730 years, which meant that many calculated dates in papers published prior to this were incorrect (the error in the half-life is about 3%).

The method was developed by Willard Libby in the late 1940s and soon became a standard tool for archaeologists.

Libby received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in 1960.

When a date is quoted, the reader should be aware that if it is an uncalibrated date (a term used for dates given in radiocarbon years) it may differ substantially from the best estimate of the actual calendar date, both because it uses the wrong value for the half-life of and each component is also referred to individually as a carbon exchange reservoir.

The results were summarized in a paper in Science in 1947, in which the authors commented that their results implied it would be possible to date materials containing carbon of organic origin.

Libby and James Arnold proceeded to test the radiocarbon dating theory by analyzing samples with known ages.

For example, two samples taken from the tombs of two Egyptian kings, Zoser and Sneferu, independently dated to 2625 BC plus or minus 75 years, were dated by radiocarbon measurement to an average of 2800 BC plus or minus 250 years. Carbon dioxide produced in this way diffuses in the atmosphere, is dissolved in the ocean, and is taken up by plants via photosynthesis.

For consistency with these early papers, and to avoid the risk of a double correction for the incorrect half-life, radiocarbon ages are still calculated using the incorrect half-life value.

A correction for the half-life is incorporated into calibration curves, so even though radiocarbon ages are calculated using a half-life value that is known to be incorrect, the final reported calibrated date, in calendar years, is accurate.

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