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Nyerup's words illustrate poignantly the critical power and importance of dating; to order time.Radiocarbon dating has been one of the most significant discoveries in 20th century science.Libby later received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960: (From Taylor, 1987).Today, there are over 130 radiocarbon dating laboratories around the world producing radiocarbon assays for the scientific community.They exist in equilibrium with the C14 concentration of the atmosphere, that is, the numbers of C14 atoms and non-radioactive carbon atoms stays approximately the same over time.As soon as a plant or animal dies, they cease the metabolic function of carbon uptake; there is no replenishment of radioactive carbon, only decay.
There are three principal isotopes of carbon which occur naturally - C12, C13 (both stable) and C14 (unstable or radioactive)."Everything which has come down to us from heathendom is wrapped in a thick fog; it belongs to a space of time we cannot measure.We know that it is older than Christendom, but whether by a couple of years or a couple of centuries, or even by more than a millenium, we can do no more than guess." [Rasmus Nyerup, (Danish antiquarian), 1802 (in Trigger, 19)].The radiocarbon method was developed by a team of scientists led by the late Professor Willard F.Libby of the University of Chicago in immediate post-WW2 years.
Desmond Clark (1979) wrote that were it not for radiocarbon dating, "we would still be foundering in a sea of imprecisions sometime bred of inspired guesswork but more often of imaginative speculation" (Clark, 1979:7).