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Sample selection in radiocarbon dating

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Archaeologists working on the island of O'ahu, Hawai'i, use radiocarbon dating of samples of organic matter found trapped in fish-pond sediments to help them to learn about the chronology of the construction and use of the aquicultural systems created by the Polynesians. At one particular site, Loko Kuwili, 25 organic samples were obtained and funds were available to date an initial nine. However, on calibration to the calendar scale, the radiocarbon determinations provided date estimates that had very large variances. As a result, major issues of chronology remained unresolved and the archaeologists were faced with the prospect of another expensive programme of radiocarbon dating. This paper presents results of research that tackles the problems associated with selecting samples from those which are still available. Building on considerable recent research that utilizes Markov chain Monte Carlo methods to aid archaeologists in their radiocarbon calibration and interpretation, we adopt the standard Bayesian framework of risk functions, which allows us to assess the optimal samples to be sent for dating. Although rather computer intensive, our algorithms are simple to implement within the Bayesian radiocarbon framework that is already in place and produce results that are capable of direct interpretation by the archaeologists. By dating just three more samples from Loko Kuwili the expected variance on the date of greatest interest could be substantially reduced.
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Keywords: Markov chain Monte Carlo methods; Optimal designs; Optimal sample size; Radiocarbon dating; Risk functions

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Mexico 2: Cardiff University, UK

Publication date: 1998-04-01

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