New radiocarbon calibration data, and of the importance of standards (and of software that follows them)

The last special issue of the Radiocarbon journal marked a big step forward in radiocarbon dating. The IntCal04 calibration curve was available for a period that goes back to 26000 years BP, while the new IntCal09 data extends calibration back in time until 50000 years BP, pretty much covering the entire time span that can be obtained by means of 14C. Radiocarbon scientists believe the availability of this new calibration curve, together with some adjustments and updates for already covered periods, will allow a lot of archaeological sites to get better absolute dates, including those from the age of transition between Neanderthals and modern humans in Europe and the Mediterranean. The IntCal working group will continue to enhance the available data and a new issue is already planned for 2011.

The new curves follow the same plain CSV data format. Since 2008, I have been writing a simple programming library for the calibration of radiocarbon dates, in the Python language (this program is still highly experimental and is going to see its name changed soon). The program was written to read calibration data in .14c format, given that this is the current standard used by almost all other calibration programs like OxCal, CALIB and others. As soon as I found that new calibration data were released, I knew I wanted to try out my program with them. And I couldn’t help a moment of satisfaction when I could seamlessly add the two calibration files in the data directory and do a test calibration:

Schermata-IOSA Radiocarbon Calibration Service

Let alone my satisfaction, I think there are two good things in action here

  • data that follows consistently and continuously a clear, plain, standard format
  • software that follows the same standards in a sleek, transparent way

We don’t need much more than this to be able to exploit the rich amount of archaeological data that will become available in the next years.