Understanding the variability in freshwater radiocarbon reservoir offsets: a cautionary tale

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Freshwater resources in past diets can lead to inaccuracies when attempts are made to ascertain their radiocarbon ages or those of the consumers. Radiocarbon reservoir effects may lead to significant age offsets when the bones or other tissues of these consumers are radiocarbon dated. A number of recent studies have investigated freshwater reservoir offsets. However no study thus far has satisfactorily obtained a ubiquitous freshwater reservoir correction due to variability in the ecosystems analysed. This study tests the possibility of predicting freshwater reservoir effects from the carbonate alkalinity of the water with measurements on modern fish bone and water samples. A predictive capability would be especially valuable in the absence of well-preserved archaeological fish bone. We surveyed samples from lakes and rivers in varying geological settings in Britain and Ireland. Modern fish bone and water samples were analysed to investigate modern radiocarbon offsets from the atmosphere. Archaeological fish bone was also analysed to examine past reservoir offsets at selected sites. Stable carbon and nitrogen isotope values were measured to aid in interpretation of any variability in the offsets. Large freshwater reservoir offsets were measured in some modern and archaeological samples (maximum offset = 1638 14C years). The freshwater reservoir offsets in the fish bone were highly correlated with alkalinity of water in modern lake sites analysed. However, a high amount of variation within and between fish species was also evident in the results, precluding the possibility of providing regional corrections for freshwater reservoir offsets from alkalinity although this still may provide a general guideline. The variability is thought to be due to differences in the diet of individual fish.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1306-1316
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - May 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Archaeology


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