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Improved AMS 14C Dating of Shell Carbonates Using High-Precision X-Ray Diffraction and a Novel Density Separation Protocol (Cards)

  • Katerina Douka (a1) (a2), Robert E M Hedges (a1) and Thomas F G Higham (a2)


One critical variable in the successful application of radiocarbon dating is the effective removal of carbonaceous contaminants. In the case of marine carbonates, contamination appears usually in the form of secondary low-magnesium calcite, the stable polymorph of calcium carbonate and byproduct of the post-mortem recrystallization or replacement of the autochthonous phase, originally in the form of high-magnesium calcite or aragonite. Depending on the nature of the depositional environment, the secondary phase may be contemporary in age with the original shell carbonate and may have even been derived from it by dissolution-recrystallization processes, or can be an exogenous contaminant of younger or older age. The limited ability of current pretreatment protocols to detect and remove the secondary mineralogical phases prior to dating carbonates has been one of the reasons marine shell and coral 14C determinations are often difficult to validate in terms of their reliability. We have developed a new pretreatment protocol designed to achieve greater reliability and accuracy in the dating of this material. The method entails 2 steps. The first one involves the improved detection and quantification of secondary calcite in aragonite using X-ray diffraction, at a precision of ∼0.1% and ∼0.8%, respectively. Next, where this is required, a novel density separation step using non-toxic heavy liquids (CarDS) is applied to the diagenetic sample. This enables the clear separation of calcite and aragonite, with only the latter kept for dating. We have applied the new steps, screening and separation, on standard and archaeological examples and our initial results suggest that it is successful and reproducible. In this paper, we describe the method and initial results.

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