Radiocarbon Dating Lab
From human remains to the clothing of a Coptic mummy: radiocarbon dating allows us to discover the age of many objects. The lab has over sixty years of experience and is unique in Belgium. Its showpiece is the state-of-the-art particle accelerator MICADAS.
Organic and inorganic materials
The Radiocarbon Dating Lab dates various materials with an age of up to 50,000 years:
- organic materials: charcoal, textiles (wool, silk, linen), wood, collagen from bone, seeds, fruits, nuts, soil, etc.
- inorganic materials: shells, mortars, cremated bones, etc.
We conduct dating for archaeologists, geologists, art historians, and museums in Belgium and abroad. We can also provide added value for climate research. Private individuals also call on us, especially for the dating of artworks. Through its research programme, the team has specialised in dating cremated bones, textiles and mortars.
Dr Mathieu Boudin, head of the lab: “In the 1980s, we pioneered the dating of lime mortars, and we continue to refine our methods. Through the BRAIN-be 2.0 research programme, we are developing a method with the Monuments and Monument Decoration Lab to pre-screen lime mortars. This will allow us to determine the quality of the mortar and consequently the reliability of its dating.”
How does radiocarbon dating work?
Radiocarbon dating is based on two main principles. Firstly, radioactive carbon or 14C is produced in the atmosphere and absorbed by all organisms. Secondly, there is radioactive decay: the radioactive carbon in a material disappears at a constant rate. In other words, half of the 14C present in life will have disappeared 5,730 years after the organism's death. This period of 5,730 years is called the ‘half-life’. After 11,460 years, a quarter remains, and so on.
To perform radiocarbon dating, we measure the amount of radioactive carbon in the material. Using the half-life, we then calculate the age. The method is suitable for objects up to about 50,000 years old.
The lab has set up its research programmes – both methodological studies and applied research. The former includes the nanofiltration of amino acids, the latter the study of cremated bones, food remains on pottery, or dredged material from the river Scheldt. We publish the results in scientific journals and books for the general public. The data is available in our online database. Our experts also regularly give lectures.
Tess Van den Brande, radiocarbon dating technician: “We work closely with the other labs and the conservation-restoration studios of the Institute. We also join forces with the Regions and Communities in Belgium and universities in, for example, the framework of the CRUMBEL research project. As part of this project, we study cremated bones found in Belgium to learn more about our ancestors' living conditions and burial rituals, from the Neolithic to the early Middle Ages.”
Unique AMS machine in Belgium
When the lab was set up in the 1960s, we used a proportional gas meter as a measuring instrument. From 1989, the prepared samples were sent to foreign labs for dating with accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS), the new standard in radiocarbon dating.
In 2013 the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage received its own latest-generation AMS machine, MICADAS (mini carbon dating system). The entire procedure, from sample preparation to measurement, has since taken place at the Institute. MICADAS consists of a particle accelerator linked to a mass spectrometer. The device allows tiny samples to be measured quickly in just a few hours. Acquired thanks to the support of the National Lottery, the MICADAS is the only AMS apparatus for carbon 14 dating in Belgium.
All radiocarbon dating carried out in our lab over the past 60 years can be found in two publicly accessible online databases. They contain a wealth of information for art historians, geologists and archaeologists.
- The first database contains all samples measured before 2014.
- The second database was developed in 2014 and is automatically updated with all new dating.
The two databases will soon be merged, thanks to grants from the National Lottery.
Do you want to have a sample or object dated? Please contact us!
We will be pleased to guide you in the choice of the most suitable analysis technique or study.
Request a free quote by e-mail or telephone.
For complex studies, we come on site in advance to determine the price.