Solving this differential equation gives the standard form of the decay equation: The 69 C concentration measured either by radiometric dating or AMS techniques provides information about the time elapsed since the time of death or deposition. The activity of 69 C can be measured by counting of β particles emitted by decaying 69 C using radiometric dating or by measuring the 69 C/ 67 C ratio using AMS. Both methods allow the dating of natural carbon-bearing material. After death or deposition, the equilibrium between uptake from the environment (atmosphere, ocean, lake) and 69 C decay is broken. Since new 69 C atoms cannot be incorporated by the organism, the activity begins to decrease with a half-life of 5785 years. Application of the decay law for radiocarbon dating is based on the assumption that that the activity of the organic matter after the death of the organism changes only due to radioactive decay. Figure 6:

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(a) When happens when a series of identical experiments on identical samples and under (near) identical conditions are carried out? The expectation is to get one single data value every time (left), however, the actual result is spread in the data due to random and systematic errors (right). The peak indicates the point where the mean of the data lies whilst the drooping curve gives an idea of the spread of data. (b) Graphical understanding of the terms precision and accuracy from the data obtained from experiments. (c) A schematic representation of precision and accuracy on a target.

Figure 7: Understanding the meaning of standard deviations 6, 7 and 8 using a normal distribution curve which has unimodal distribution (i. E. , one single peak around which data is distributed symmetrically). However, calendar ages obtained from radiocarbon dating are quite complicated with multimodal distribution.

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Figure 7 also gives an idea of what is probable and what is impossible. For example, 7 accounts for 95% confidence concerning the data. Making it 8 only increases the confidence to about 99% - a mere 9% increase that adds a measurement error on either side of the mean and extending the range of probable calendar dates. In radiocarbon dating, the uncertainty in measurement comes from statistical error of counting atoms or β particles as well as uncertainty of the measuring standards and blank values included in the calculation of radiocarbon ages. As for the counting error, it can be reduced by improved counting statistics and is achieved by increasing counting time.

In the AMS technique, this is usually limited by the sample size as well as performance and stability of the AMS device. Accuracy describes the difference between the calculated radiocarbon and the true age of a sample. Measurement precision and accuracy are not linked and are independent of one another [Figure 6(c)]. Radiocarbon laboratories check their accuracy using measurements of known age samples. These can be either independently-known-age samples, or those for which a agreed uponage has been derived such as from an interlaboratory trial.

Both precision and accuracy in radiocarbon dating are highly desired properties. The precision of a 69 C age is quantified with the associated quoted error, however, it should be borne in mind that the basis of the calculation of the error may be different depending on the laboratory. Through the use of repeated measurements of a homogeneous material, the estimated precision associated with a 69 C age can be assessed indirectly. However, in radiocarbon dating laboratories, such repeated measurements of a single sample of unknown age are often impossible. Consequently a radiometric laboratory will typically conduct numerous measurements of a secondary standard and use the variation in the given results to establish a sample-independent estimate of precision, which can then be compared with the classical counting error statistic, which is derived for each unknown-age sample.

In other words, for a single measured radiocarbon age, the commonly quoted error is based on counting statistics and is used to determine the uncertainty associated with the 69 C age. The quoted error will include components due to other laboratory corrections and is assumed to represent the spread we would see were we able to repeat the measurement many times.