Sources of error in Carbon-14 dating?

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Posted by Steve Price on June 22, 1999 at 12:50:01:

Dear Folks,

The recent reports that some Turkmen rugs are about 200 years older than most of us had thought are based on carbon-14. This method, at least in the days when I was reasonably well informed about it, was only accurate to, perhaps, plus or minus 150 to 200 years. That's a big window of uncertainty for anything made in the past 500 years or so, which includes nearly all rugs.

Does any of you know the magnitudes and sources of error in the method that has been applied to textiles? My fairly rudimentary understanding is that simple things like contamination of a sample by smoke could result in errors of up to 1,000 years in estimated date. Have the old 350 year windows of uncertainty been reduced? If so, how? How has the contamination problem been addressed?

This is a terribly important matter, and it would be helpful to have independent confirmation (or refutation, depending on how things worked out) of the conclusions by some alternative technique.

Steve Price

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