Long-Awaited Update Arrives for Radiocarbon Dating – Scientific American

Long-Awaited Update Arrives for Radiocarbon Dating – Scientific American

More than 3,500 years ago a catastrophic volcanic eruption struck ancient Thera, known today as the Greek island of Santorini. Ash and pumice rained across the Mediterranean, and tsunami waves rolled onto faraway shores in Crete. In the 1960s archaeologists on Santorini uncovered a Minoan settlement frozen in time, with vibrant wall frescoes decorating multistory houses, all buried by volcanic debris.

The eruption was one of the most powerful volcanic explosions of the past 10,000 years and a crucial time point of the Mediterranean Bronze Age. It is also a major area of controversy in archaeology; researchers have argued for decades over the date of this cataclysm.

Although it does not settle the debate, a recent adjustment to the radiocarbon-dating process narrows down the possibilities. This much anticipated new calibration curve, a set of data points used to convert radiocarbon-dating results into calendar years, is highlighted in a special August issue of Radiocarbon. Called IntCal20, it draws from nearly twice the data of the previous curve, from 2013—and may prompt scientists to reevaluate the age of sites, artifacts and events around the world.

“It’s a really massive increase in the data set, and with each revision our ability to confidently date the past improves,” says Thomas Higham, a radiocarbon-dating specialist at the University of Oxford, who was not involved in the calibration effort. “A lot of people are excited about this new curve because it is going to give us the opportunity to sharpen our chronologies and understand
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