Dating rock paintings

The most common example of this form of absolute chronology, which we can use with rock paintings, is radiocarbon dating. Radiocarbon dating also called carbon dating only works with organic things; materials that came from living things.


It relies upon the fact that plants take in carbon dioxide during photosynthesis and use it to make its chemicals. Animals eat these plants and the carbon is taken up into their chemicals. The carbon element is composed of two different atoms called isotopes meaning they have the same number of protons but there are differing numbers of neutrons in each different type of atom.

When we add the number of protons, also known as the atomic number, to the number of neutrons, the total is the atomic mass number. The most common carbon atom has 6 protons and 6 neutrons, so the atomic number for this carbon isotope is 6 and the atomic mass number is This can be written as:.

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Carbon typically has 6 neutrons making the isotope carbon 12 C12 , but some carbon atoms have 7 neutrons making carbon 13 C13 and some carbon atoms have 8 neutrons making carbon 14 C The carbon 14 isotope is radioactive. The various isotopes are found in organic materials in the proportions shown in Figure 2.

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Carbon istopes 12, 13, All the time an organism is alive it takes up all forms of the carbon isotopes to make its chemicals but on death it stops taking in any carbon. Carbon dating works because the amount of carbon 14 in the atmosphere has not changed in thousands of years. Carbon 14 is formed as cosmic rays hit atoms in the upper atmosphere.

Defining the age of a rock or cave painting- Learn Chemistry

Living things, while they are still alive, absorb the isotopes of carbon. This means all living things have radioactive carbon 14 in them Figure 3. Carbon 14 entering the atmosphere. Image courtesy of Peter Bull.

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  • After a living thing dies, the amount of carbon 14 in the material decreases with time it decays with a half-life of about years into nitrogen Figure 4. Half-life graph of carbon Carbon dating involves the measuring of the amount of the radioactive carbon isotope C14 absorbed by living things into the organic matter. By comparing how much carbon 14 there is in the dead organism with the amount in a living one, the age of the dead organism can be estimated.

    The difficulty with carbon dating pigments is that they are often made from rocks, and do not contain organic matter. Where there are engravings or paintings that lack any organic pigments or binders there is no basis for the build up of natural carbon In some paints where suitable materials such as limestone, chalk or charcoal pigments do exist, we can use carbon dating.

    The sample size can only be very small otherwise the painting will be damaged or the level of contamination by the tools we use to take the sample will be high and could produce less accurate results. Carbon dating also relies upon certain assumptions. The first is that carbon 14 has always been produced and had the same concentration in the atmosphere. This assumption is more important the older the carbon sample is. After 10, years there are no absolute calibration points such as tree rings. The second assumption is that radioactive decay rates stay the same and have always been what we measure them now to be.

    Absolute Dating Problems

    Up to only small amounts of organic matter could be dated directly using carbon isotope decay. Then a new, highly sensitive dating method, called accelerator mass spectrometry AMS was developed. That's much less than the 1 to 10 grams of carbon needed with normal carbon dating. In general terms, in AMS scientists create negative ions by bombarding atoms with fast moving particles which are accelerated using a particle accelerator.

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    Rock Art Dating Methods: Problems and Solutions

    Then, using a mass spectrometer, they count all the carbon 14 atoms and from that work out the age. Even attempts to compensate for the routine misuses of dating results have been misguided. Thus the practice of distinguishing between B. Reference to a calibration curve proposed for bristlecone pine in some part of California does not compensate for the numerous inherent qualifications of radiocarbon results, it merely compounds interpretational confusion. Nevertheless, it is most instructive to consider the difficulties of archaeological dating before focusing on the dating of rock art.

    Very few methods are known of absolute dating, such as dendrochronology analysing the annual growth rings of sectioned tree trunks and counting of annual ice layers particularly in Greenland and Antarctica. Another possibility might be the annual luminescence banding in carbonate speleothems Baker et al. The radiometric method most used in estimating archaeological time is the analysis of carbon nuclides.

    Rock Art Dating

    Especially in the Anglo-American version of archaeological practice, this method now forms the chronological backbone of the discipline. All radiometric techniques as well as some non-radiometric dating methods, such as fission-track analysis provide sets of statistical information thought to relate to the age of samples; they do not yield sidereal or calendar ages.

    The probability statements they offer can be expressed at one, two or more standard deviations, which means that the true age of the sample would be within stated tolerance values if all secondary qualifications were ignored. In the case of radiocarbon, the remnant content of an unstable and thus radioactive isotope of carbon is determined to estimate the time when its decay to nitrogen commenced.

    Rock art dating

    For this to be accurate it is necessary to know the initial concentration of carbon, 13 and 14; the decay rate; and that the process had not been influenced by other factors. There are problems with all these conditions:. The initial atmospheric concentrations of 14C and d13C are not known to us. We can only make assumptions about past atmospheric carbon nuclide regimes, which introduces a significant unknown variable.

    Dendrochronology has documented major variations in past carbon regimes. The decay rate is expressed in the half-life of radioactive substances. The assumption that the ratio of carbon isotopes in the carbon reservoir of the Earth are the result of a complete and rapid equalisation is not necessarily valid. The assumption that the ratios of carbon isotopes are only altered by radioactive decay is only approximately valid. The levels of radiocarbon cannot be measured with real accuracy.