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Pretreatment of Terrestrial Macrofossils

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 February 2020

Margaret W Norris
Rafter Radiocarbon Laboratory, GNS Science, Lower Hutt, New Zealand
Jocelyn C Turnbull*
Rafter Radiocarbon Laboratory, GNS Science, Lower Hutt, New Zealand CIRES, University of Colorado at Boulder, CO, USA
Jamie D Howarth
Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand
Marcus J Vandergoes
Rafter Radiocarbon Laboratory, GNS Science, Lower Hutt, New Zealand
*Corresponding author. Email:


Acid-alkali-acid (AAA) pretreatment is widely used to clean terrestrial plant macrofossil samples for radiocarbon (14C) dating. There is wide variation amongst laboratories in the AAA method details and less rigorous AAA pretreatment is often used on fragile or small samples. Yet there is little evidence as to the efficacy of the different methods and whether the use of less rigorous methods is justified. We investigated four variations of AAA pretreatment: acid only (no alkali wash); room temperature AAA; “standard” AAA at 85°C; and “aggressive” AAA at 85°C with alkali washes repeated until no discoloration was detected. We tested six different terrestrial macrofossils from four different locations and ranging in age from mid-Holocene to the Last Glacial Maximum. Our results demonstrate that while acid only is not always sufficient to remove young material, there is no difference in 14C age of samples pretreated by any of the AAA variants. We also observed mass loss of 85–90% in the standard and aggressive AAA pretreatments, and much more modest mass loss in the room temperature AAA pretreatment. Therefore, we conclude that room temperature AAA pretreatment is optimal to remove contaminating material from fragile terrestrial macrofossils while retaining the majority of the authentic sample material.

Research Article
© 2020 by the Arizona Board of Regents on behalf of the University of Arizona

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