Archaeologists can then measure the amount of carbon-14 compared to the stable isotope carbon-12 and determine how old an item is.
For the most part, radiocarbon dating has made a huge difference for archaeologists everywhere, but the process does have a few flaws.
While other methods of dating objects exist, radiocarbon dating has remained vital for most archaeologists.
For example, it makes it possible to compare the ages of objects on a worldwide scale, allowing for indispensible comparisons across the globe.
In contrast to relative dating techniques whereby artifacts were simply designated as "older" or "younger" than other cultural remains based on the presence of fossils or stratigraphic position, 14C dating provided an easy and increasingly accessible way for archaeologists to construct chronologies of human behavior and examine temporal changes through time at a finer scale than what had previously been possible.
The application of Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) for radiocarbon dating in the late 1970s was also a major achievement.
This is actually a mini-simulator, in that it processes a different sample each time and generates different dates.
Radiocarbon dating was the first chronometric technique widely available to archaeologists and was especially useful because it allowed researchers to directly date the panoply of organic remains often found in archaeological sites including artifacts made from bone, shell, wood, and other carbon based materials.
The data can be a little off particularly in younger artifacts, and anything older than about 50,000 years is pretty much too old to be tested because at that point the majority of the C-14 has decayed to practically undetectable levels.
There's also still usually a wide window of time that an object can fall into.
Because it reacts identically to C-12 and C-13, C-14 becomes attached to complex organic molecules through photosynthesis in plants and becomes part of their molecular makeup.
Animals eating those plants in turn absorb Carbon-14 as well as the stable isotopes.