14 May 2019

New radiocarbon dating tool will paint more precise picture of history

A new project, led by a University of Sheffield statistician, will help researchers date historic buildings and archaeological finds more accurately.

Lyuba the mummified baby mammoth in a museum

Dr Tim Heaton has been awarded £55,000 from the Leverhulme Trust to support his work on the on the new radiocarbon dating calibration curve.

Since the level of radiocarbon in the atmosphere has fluctuated over time, anyone who uses radiocarbon needs to adjust their dates via an internationally agreed calibration curve known as IntCal.

A new version of the curve, created by Dr Tim Heaton and Professor Paul Blackwell at the University of Sheffield with researchers at Queen's University Belfast and other institutions around the world, will be launched soon. The grant from the Leverhulme Trust will help radiocarbon users to unlock its full potential.

Dr Heaton said: "Our ability to accurately measure time is vital to answering many of the biggest environmental questions we face. Without a precise understanding of the timescales on which events occur we cannot identify pivotal causal mechanisms, test central hypotheses or make accurate future forecasts for policy makers.

"Radiocarbon dating is the most commonly used method for dating in the current geological period, the Quaternary, and underpins the breadth of archaeological and environmental science. It allows researchers to investigate the timings, frequencies, and rates of change for key events in the history of humans and earth systems over the last 50,000 years."

"My project aims to provide the tools to enable radiocarbon users to fully access the potential of the new curve and date historic buildings such as Kilve Chantry in Somerset, or Lyuba the ~40,000 year old baby woolly mammoth, more accurately."

Previous versions of the IntCal curve have been used to date mammoths that were found preserved in Siberia, and the bones of Richard III, which were famously discovered beneath a car park in Leicester.

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