Carbon 14 dating techniques

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Carbon 14 and the Dead Sea Scrolls

Just around the same time that the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, scientists developed a way to accurately date some ancient material. Known as carbon-14 dating, this process has been a valuable tool in studying the origins of the scrolls.

All living things contain carbon. But carbon can take several different forms including stable atoms with 6 neutrons in the center and unstable atoms with 8 neutrons (carbon-14). When a plant or animal is alive, the percentage of carbon 14 in its system is the same as in the surrounding environment. But once an organism dies, the carbon 14 decays, slowly but steadily, over time. Scientists can measure the amount of carbon 14 left in a natural material and, working backwards, figure out when the source plant or animal died.

So what does this mean for the Dead Sea Scrolls? When a tanner kills a goat to make its skin into a parchment, the carbon-14 decaying process begins. Hundreds of years later, scientists measure how much carbon 14 is left. This tells them when the goat died—and thus the maximum age of the parchment.

Carbon-14 dating techniques have improved over time. Back in the late 1940s, scientists needed large samples of tissue to conduct a test. To date a scroll you pretty much had to destroy it. Today, more sensitive technology allows researchers to get carbon 14 data with little or small damage only.

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Scientists can count the carbon atoms in once-living material—such as the parchments used in the Dead Sea Scrolls—to determine how old they are.