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The method was invented by Willard Libby in the late 1940s and soon became a standard tool for archaeologists.Libby received the Nobel Prize for his work in 1960.A sample of linen from the shroud was tested in 1988 and found to date from the 13th or 14th century, casting doubt on its authenticity.In 1939 the Radiation Laboratory at Berkeley began experiments to determine if any of the elements common in organic matter had isotopes with half-lives long enough to be of value in biomedical research.Libby and several collaborators proceeded to experiment with methane collected from sewage works in Baltimore, and after isotopically enriching their samples they were able to demonstrate that they contained radioactive .By contrast, methane created from petroleum showed no radiocarbon activity.Additional complications come from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil, and from the above-ground nuclear tests done in the 1950s and 1960s.

Samples were converted to solid carbon for the earliest devices, but it was quickly discovered that converting them to gas or liquid form gave more accurate results.The resulting data, in the form of a calibration curve, is now used to convert a given measurement of radiocarbon in a sample into an estimate of the sample's calendar age.Other corrections must be made to account for the proportion of throughout the biosphere (reservoir effects).The development of radiocarbon dating has had a profound impact on archaeology.In addition to permitting more accurate dating within archaeological sites than did previous methods, it allows comparison of dates of events across great distances.Histories of archaeology often refer to its impact as the "radiocarbon revolution".

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