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The clock was initially calibrated by dating objects of known age such as Egyptian mummies and bread from Pompeii; work that won Willard Libby the 1960 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
But even he “realized that there probably would be variation”, says Christopher Bronk Ramsey, a geochronologist at the University of Oxford, UK, who led the latest work, published today in Science.
Carbon dating is used to work out the age of organic material — in effect, any living thing.
Carbon dating cannot be used on most fossils, not only because they are almost always allegedly too old, but also because they rarely contain the original carbon of the organism that has been fossilized.
Also, many fossils are contaminated with carbon from the environment during collection or preservation procedures.
As stated previously, carbon dating cannot be used on artifacts over about 50,000 years old.
These artifacts have gone through many carbon-14 half-lives, and the amount of carbon-14 remaining in them is miniscule and very difficult to detect.