A carbon dating
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By radiocarbon dating a piece of wood which has been dated by counting the annual growth rings of trees back to when that piece of wood grew, a calibration table can be constructed to convert radiocarbon years to true calendar years.
The problem with freshwater clams arises because these organisms derive the carbon atoms which they use to build their shells from the water in their environment.
For this reason special precautions need to be exercised when sampling materials which contain only small amounts of radiocarbon.
Reports of young radiocarbon ages for coal probably all stem from a misunderstanding of one or both of these two factors.
Other radiometric dating methods such as potassium-argon or rubidium-strontium are used for such purposes by those who believe that the earth is billions of years old.
Radiocarbon is not suitable for this purpose because it is only applicable: a) on a time scale of thousands of years and b) to remains of once-living organisms (with minor exceptions, from which rocks are excluded).
Long tree-ring chronologies are rare (there are only two that I am aware of which are of sufficient length to be of interest to radiocarbon) and difficult to construct.
They have been slowly built up by matching ring patterns between trees of different ages, both living and dead, from a given locality.
In the early days of radiocarbon analysis this limit was often around 20,000 radiocarbon years.
Thus, all the researcher was able to say about samples with low levels of radiocarbon was that their age was greater than or equal to 20,000 radiocarbon years (or whatever the sensitivity limit of his apparatus was).
For example, a sample with a true radiocarbon age of 100,000 radiocarbon years will yield a measured radiocarbon age of about 20,000 radiocarbon years if the sample is contaminated with a weight of modern carbon of just 5% of the weight of the sample's carbon.
It is not too difficult to supply contaminating radiocarbon since it is present in relatively high concentrations in the air and in the tissues of all living things including any individuals handling the sample.
This gives the clam shell an artificially old radiocarbon age.