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Radiocarbon Dating: An Archaeological Perspective

April 2018 (122.2)

Book Review

Radiocarbon Dating: An Archaeological Perspective

By R.E. Taylor and Ofer Bar-Yosef. 2nd ed. Pp. 404. Routledge, New York 2014. $150. ISBN 978-1598745900 (cloth).

Reviewed by

This is a big book by any measure. Physically, its dimensions are 8.5 x 11 in., a full inch thick, and 404 pages long. Big also in intellectual content, the new edition is full of basic and up-to-date information about an essential archaeological method and technique. This is the second edition of the book first published by Taylor in 1987. It is quite an update. The new edition is twice the length of the first, which was published in a smaller 6 x 9 in. format.

Renfrew’s short but engaging foreword describes some of the advances in archaeological interpretations of cultural and social developments made possible by radiocarbon dating. In turn, the authors in their preface (15–16) recognize Renfrew’s significant contribution to broadening acceptance of radiocarbon dating through his pioneering work, reported in Before Civilization: The Radiocarbon Revolution and Prehistoric Europe (New York 1973).

The authors’ intent with this new edition is to introduce the basic information about radiocarbon dating, which they undertake in chapters 1–5. These chapters authoritatively cover the principles of physics and chemistry on which radiocarbon dating is based; the procedures required to make use of the technique; some prominent applications; issues and procedures for the selection and pretreatment of samples for dating; and circumstances that must be accounted for when interpreting results (e.g., the effect of atmospheric testing of atomic weapons in the second half of the 20th century; the “marine reservoir effect” of samples from marine environments—such as mollusk shells, which have a 14C content that differs from terrestrial organisms). The new edition text is expanded and updated in each of these chapters. Included are many more examples in every one of the organizational categories.

The second edition also has three new chapters (6, 7, and 9). Chapter 6, written by Bar-Yosef, provides case studies and examples of the application of radiocarbon dating in Old World archaeology, including the colonization of Australia and New Guinea, the origins of agriculture in western Asia, the Santorini eruption and its implications in the eastern Mediterranean, and the debate over King David and Iron Age chronology, among others. Chapter 7 considers case studies in New World archaeology, including the Clovis First vs. pre-Clovis debate, the Kennewick skeleton, the early radiocarbon dates from the Monte Verde site in Chile, and others.

Chapter 8 (“Radiocarbon Dating: Origin and Evolution”) is a detailed history of the development of radiocarbon dating written by Taylor, who in the 1960s was involved directly in some of the developments of the method as a graduate student of W.F. Libby, the pioneer, along with his collaborators E.C. Anderson and J.R. Arnold, of the radiocarbon dating method and technique in the years following World War II. Taylor has extended coverage in the second edition to include the development and refinement of radiocarbon dating using accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) technology, which was not yet available at the time of publication of the first edition. This method has reduced radically the required sample size for radiocarbon dating, from grams (for conventional, decay-based estimates) to milligrams and in some situations micrograms, making this absolute dating technique much more widely applicable and improving precision. One of the values of this new edition is the detailed description of the AMS technique, consideration of related issues, and examples of its use.

The final chapter, another new addition, is a helpful guide to a wide range of sources about the radiocarbon method. Reviewed are the primary sources of information about the method and results of its use, including the journal Radiocarbon, important publications and reviews, major conferences on the method, databases of radiocarbon dates, and date calibration methods and techniques. The information provided here draws on the authors’ decades of experience developing and using the method.

Archaeologists teaching any course that covers radiocarbon dating will want to have this book on hand as a quick reference and a review of aspects of the method and its technique, interpretations, and history. Likewise, those working with radiocarbon sampling and dates from their own work, or the work of others that they use for comparative studies, will find useful and authoritative information in the new edition of Radiocarbon Dating: An Archaeological Perspective.

Francis P. McManamon
Center for Digital Antiquity
Arizona State University

Book Review of Radiocarbon Dating: An Archaeological Perspective, by R.E. Taylor and Ofer Bar-Yosef

Reviewed by Francis P. McManamon

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 2 (April 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1222.mcmanamon

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