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Radiocarbon revolutionised archaeological dating, scholar says

‘New research techniques push beginning of Neolithic period beyond 9000 BC’

By Saeb Rawashdeh - Oct 27,2016 - Last updated at Oct 27,2016

Piotr Jacobsson

AMMAN — The use of radiocarbon to date Neolithic sites revolutionised archaeological thinking, but the potential impact of the technique has not yet been reached, according to scholar Piotr Jacobsson.

Radiocarbon (C-14) dating relies on the production of natural C-14 in the atmosphere; as C-14 is radioactive, its atoms “will decay with time”, explained Jacobsson at a recent  lecture on dating the Neolithic period in the Levant, part of a mini-series on science and archaeology at the British Institute in Amman. 

The amount of C-14 found in the tissue of plants, animals and humans “is proportional to the amount of C-14 in the atmosphere”.

“With the death of the said organism,” the scholar said, “the C-14 supply is cut off and the radiocarbon in the tissues begins to decay. As this decay is always happening at the same rate, it is possible to infer the time elapsed since the same organism died.”

The invention of the carbon dating technique in the late 1940s enabled researchers to derive reliable dates for a much broader range of prehistoric sites, the scholar emphasised.

Neolithic research since the 1950s helped define the main stages of the period and gave researchers a picture of “the rise and fall of communities over multiple millennia”, Jacobsson elaborated.

“Numerous Jordanian sites, such as Ain Ghazal, or Wadi Feynan, were essential to the development of this picture,” he said, noting that Ain Ghazal represents one of the top five sites in Neolithic dating.

The scholar, a PhD holder from the University of Glasgow, said that the real issue is the “fine chronology” of Neolithic cultures in Southwest Asia and the Levant.

The archaeological importance of radiocarbon was made clear by the role it played in forming the current perceptions of the Neolithic period, the expert stressed.

“Until the 1950s, the Neolithic [era] was believed to have been a period of a steady increase in the reliance on food production, thus laying the foundation for the rise of the first cities around 3000 BC.”

According to the scholar, this early research assumed that the first full Neolithic cultures flourished around 5000 BC, and that the Chalcolithic period fell between the Neolithic period and the rise of the first cities, known as the “urban revolution”.  

“This changed with Dame Kathleen Kenyon’s excavations at Tal Al Sultan on the outskirts of Jericho, which coincided with Willard Libby’s invention of the radiocarbon dating technique,” Jacobsson added. 

New research techniques pushed the beginning of the Neolithic period beyond 9000 BC, according to the scholar.

“Hence, in the wake of the C-14 revolution, what was considered as a period of maybe 2,000 years of steady development of foundations for an urban revolution became a much longer period... that needed to be studied in its own right.”

However, current archaeological knowledge is not as yet complete, he underlined.

“On the one hand, there are still too few well-dated sites, which is unsurprising given the temporal and geographic magnitude of the task, as well as the geopolitical and funding challenges faced by the researchers in the region,” Jacobsson argued. 

New technical developments, such as means of reliable routine dating of human and animal bones, might become necessary before correct dates can be obtained at a number of sites with more complex deposition histories, the scholar emphasised.

“As archaeologists move on to asking even more subtle questions of their record, these two developments — increasing empirical basis and increasing the range of datable samples — will become essential,” he said.

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