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Radiocarbon dating was one peaceful by-product of accelerated wartime research into atomic physics and radioactivity in the 1940s.

The rate of decay of 14C, which has a half-life of 5730 (40) years, is long enough to allow samples of carbon as old as 70,000 years to contain detectable levels of radioactive emissions, but short enough for samples from periods since the late Stone Age to be measured with reasonable precision.

Derivative methods may only be used for dating if their results can be related to a time-scale or reference curve that has been established by absolute dating methods.

If it is not affected in any way by its environment the result can be described as absolute.

Cores extracted from ocean floor deposits reveal variations in oxygen isotopes in the shells and skeletal material of dead marine creatures, which reflect fluctuations in global temperature and the volume of the ocean.

Sections cut through lake beds in glacial regions reveal a regular annual pattern of coarse and fine layers, known as varves.

Not all tree species are sufficiently sensitive to display distinctive variations in their ring characteristics, particularly when growing in temperate climates.Radiocarbon dating has grown exponentially, and many problems and inaccuracies have been isolated and examined, some leading to major adjustments of the results.Without doubt, it has made the greatest single contribution to the development of archaeology since geologists and prehistorians escaped from the constraints of historical chronology in the nineteenth century.Variations in climate produced observable differences in the thickness of sediments, and, like the patterns of variation in tree rings, this allows matches to be made between deposits in separate lake beds.Microscopic wind-blown pollen grains survive well in many soil conditions, and pollen that has accumulated in deep deposits - such as peat-bogs - can provide a long-term record of changes in vegetation; suitable samples may be collected from soils exposed by excavation, or from cores extracted from bogs.

It is increasingly difficult for prehistorians working in the twenty-first century to conceptualise the problems experienced by their predecessors, and approaches to interpretation before the 1960s are consistently criticised.

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