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The older a sample is, the less (the period of time after which half of a given sample will have decayed) is about 5,730 years, the oldest dates that can be reliably measured by this process date to around 50,000 years ago, although special preparation methods occasionally permit accurate analysis of older samples.

The idea behind radiocarbon dating is straightforward, but years of work were required to develop the technique to the point where accurate dates could be obtained.

The ratio of λ is a constant that depends on the particular isotope; for a given isotope it is equal to the reciprocal of the mean-life – i.e.

the average or expected time a given atom will survive before undergoing radioactive decay. The calculations involve several steps and include an intermediate value called the "radiocarbon age", which is the age in "radiocarbon years" of the sample: an age quoted in radiocarbon years means that no calibration curve has been used − the calculations for radiocarbon years assume that the , which for more than a decade after Libby's initial work was thought to be 5,568 years.

This was revised in the early 1960s to 5,730 years, which meant that many calculated dates in papers published prior to this were incorrect (the error in the half-life is about 3%).

The development of radiocarbon dating has had a profound impact on archaeology.

In addition to permitting more accurate dating within archaeological sites than previous methods, it allows comparison of dates of events across great distances.

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Neither the pre-existing Egyptian chronology nor the new radiocarbon dating method could be assumed to be accurate, but a third possibility was that the In the 1960s, Hans Suess was able to use the tree-ring sequence to show that the dates derived from radiocarbon were consistent with the dates assigned by Egyptologists.