What is important to note is that raw radiocarbon age ranges are centered on the date that is statistically most likely to be the correct one for a dated sample.
In that sense, it is somewhat warranted to use the date as a shorthand to discuss how old a sample is.
A Very Remote Period Indeed: Paleolithic radiocarbon legerdemain Science Now: Radiocarbon Daters Tune Up Their Time Machine Two articles of note on the subject of carbon dating have appeared over the past week, the first of which looks at the way in which in which some online writers – myself included, I’m afraid – don’t always give correct dates when considering radiocarbon years and calendar years, with the result that the order in which events occurred, or how artefacts and remains are placed in their Late Middle and Upper Palaeolithic context, can by default, be misleading.
For the sake of space and brevity I’ve included a couple of extracts from both posts, but needless to say, both are worth reading in their entirety. Professor Julien Riel-Salvatore, who writes thus: Two fundamental but often underappreciated aspects of radiocarbon dating concern the ages it yields and the fact that these ages need to be calibrated in order to get an age that can be expressed in calendar years.
I say these aspects are underappreciated because of the way radiocarbon age determinations are usually reported in news reports and, more rarely, in actual research papers. Radiocarbon dating is based on the observation that given 14C in previously living organisms decays at a constant, predictable rate.
In this case, half of a sample’s 14C decays in about 5730 years in exponential fashion.
This is because the concentration of atmospheric radiocarbon has not been constant over time.
However, this problem can be corrected through the use of calibration curves based on the radiocarbon dating of samples of known age and extrapolated from the discrepancy between the two ages.Samples whose calendar age can be determined include historical artifacts, as well as organic remains that grow or accumulate in yearly increments, such as trees (that accumulated a new grwoth ring yearly) or corals.This means, that after 5730 years, 1/2 of the 14C of a previously living organism remain, 1/4 remains after 11,460 years, etc.The uncertainty or error range reported for all radiocarbon dates is due to imprecision in counting the radioactive decay of carbon atoms in a sample, and it is a critical component of the date.What the error range indicates is a 66% chance that the age of a sample falls within the interval it brackets.Double the error range, and the resulting interval is 95% likely to include it.