The University of Arizona

Refining Background Corrections for Radiocarbon Dating of Bone Collagen at ORAU

R E Wood, C Bronk Ramsey, T G Higham


During the laboratory pretreatment of samples for radiocarbon dating, small amounts of carbon may be added to a sample. Contamination can be incorporated at any stage: during chemical pretreatment, combustion to CO2, graphitization, or accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) measurement. Such carbon contamination is often modern in age, and so can have an especially severe effect on samples older than ~25 ka BP. During the extraction of collagen from bone using the ultrafiltration protocol at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit (ORAU), small amounts of young carbon are added to the sample. Currently, this contamination is poorly characterized when less than 10 mg of collagen is extracted from a bone. Demand to date small collagen samples with 14C concentrations that approach the detection limit of AMS measurement has increased recently with the growing interest in, for example, directly dating Neanderthal remains and Upper Paleolithic bone artifacts. This paper aims to reduce the minimum collagen sample size required to produce a reliable date from 10 to 5 mg by re-examining the combustion background and subsequently the pretreatment background for bone. The average of 136 measurements of directly combusted nylon suggests that 0.0007 ± 0.001 mg of modern carbon is added to each sample, although the distribution is positively skewed. Regression analysis of the measurements of 52 collagen samples extracted from a bone of background age results in a background of just less than 50,000 BP for bone treated at ORAU.

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