C14 and Scientific Illiteracy

I was watching a movie and at the beginning of the movie there is group of people and they find a piece of gold jewelry of some very ancient design. (It was relevant to the plot that it looked to be very old but it actually wasn’t.) I have forgotten which movie it was so I cannot remember what the story was about. About all I can really recall about it was the gold was dated by radiocarbon (C14). One of the characters came in and told the rest that the C14 date was some rather recent date, like 1862 or something that recent and that precise.

This is about all I can remember of the movie-the remarkably precise C14 date and that it was on a piece of gold jewelry.

Over the years of studying human fossils I have dealt with dates on these fossils, studied dating methods, and, as an archaeologist, sent samples in for dating (C14). I have theoretical and practical experience with dating methods and this part of that movie just leapt out at me. The writers and/or director either didn’t know, didn’t care, or didn’t believe that the viewers would know or care, they just needed some way for the characters to know that the gold piece was recently made so that the plot could advance. They had heard that “C14” was used by scientists to determine the ages of old things, so they decided to use it. They didn’t research what “C14” was or if they did, didn’t care. You cannot use radiocarbon to date gold. Gold is made of gold, radiocarbon requires carbon and not just any carbon, but carbon isotopes (radiocarbon and carbon) that had been once in a living organism. And there is always a margin of error with the calculated date that is part of the date.

Note:  When I first became aware of carbon dating it was written as C14.   In the years since then, for reasons I do not know, it was decided that it should written 14C. I know that as written above it is not scientifically correct. I’ll just use the old style here out of nostalgia.