Bones that have undergone burning at high temperatures (i.e. cremation) no longer contain organic carbon. Lanting et al. (2001) proposed that some of the original structural carbonate, formed during bioapatite formation, survives. This view is based on paired radiocarbon dating of cremated bone apatite and contemporary charcoal. However, stable carbon isotope composition of carbonate in cremated bones is consistently light compared to the untreated material and is closer to the δ13C values seen in C3 plant material. This raises the question of the origin of carbonate carbon in cremated bone apatite. That is, does the isotope signal reflect an exchange of carbon with the local cremation atmosphere and thus with carbon from the burning fuel, or is it caused by isotopic fractionation during cremation?
To study the changes in carbon isotopes (14C, 13C) of bone apatite during burning up to 800 °, a modern bovine bone was exposed to a continuous flow of an artificial atmosphere (basically a high-purity O2/N2 gas mix) under defined conditions (temperature, gas composition). To simulate the influence of the fuel carbon available under real cremation conditions, fossil CO2 was added at different concentrations. To yield cremated bone apatite properties similar to archaeological cremated bones, in terms of crystallographic criteria, water vapor had to be added to the atmosphere in the oven. Infrared vibrational spectra reveal large increases in crystal size and loss of carbonate upon cremation. The isotope results indicate an effective carbon exchange between bone apatite carbonate and CO2 in the combustion gases depending on temperature and CO2 concentration. 14C dates on archaeological cremated bone apatite may thus suffer from an old-wood effect. Paired 13C and 14C values indicate that in addition to this exchange, isotope fractionation between CO2 and carbonate, and admixture of carbon from other sources such as possibly collagen or atmospheric CO2, may play a role in determining the final composition of the apatite carbonate.