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Radiocarbon reservoir effects in human bone collagen from northern Iceland

Ascough, P.L.; Church, M.J.; Cook, G.T.; Dunbar, E.; Gestsdóttir, H.; McGovern, T.H.; Dugmore, A.J.; Friðriksson, A.; Edwards, K.J.

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P.L. Ascough

G.T. Cook

E. Dunbar

H. Gestsdóttir

T.H. McGovern

A.J. Dugmore

A. Friðriksson

K.J. Edwards


Human bone collagen from a series of Icelandic human pagan graves was radiocarbon (14C) dated to aid understanding of early settlement (landnám) chronologies in northern Iceland. These individuals potentially consumed marine protein. The 14C age of samples containing marine carbon requires a correction for the marine 14C reservoir effect. The proportion of nonterrestrial sample carbon was quantified via measurement of carbon stable isotopes (δ13C) using a simple mixing model, based on δ13C measurements of archaeofaunal samples. Nonterrestrial carbon was also quantified in six pig bones from the archaeofaunal dataset. Assuming all non-terrestrial carbon in human and pig bone collagen was marine-derived, calibrated age ranges calculated using a mixed IntCal09/Marine09 calibration curve were consistent with an early settlement date close to landnám, but several samples returned prelandnám age ranges. Measurements of nitrogen stable isotopes (δ15N) strongly suggest that many of the human bone collagen samples contain freshwater diet-derived carbon. Icelandic freshwater systems frequently display large freshwater 14C reservoir effects, of the order of 10,000 14C years, and we suggest that the presence of freshwater carbon is responsible for the anomalously early ages within our dataset. In pig samples, the majority of non-terrestrial carbon is freshwater in origin, but in human samples the proportion of freshwater carbon is within the error of the marine component (± 10%). This presents a major obstacle to assessing temporal patterns in the ages of human remains from sampled graves, although the majority of grave ages are within the same, broad, calibrated range.


Ascough, P., Church, M., Cook, G., Dunbar, E., Gestsdóttir, H., McGovern, T., …Edwards, K. (2012). Radiocarbon reservoir effects in human bone collagen from northern Iceland. Journal of Archaeological Science, 39(7), 2261-2271.

Journal Article Type Article
Publication Date Jul 1, 2012
Deposit Date Mar 22, 2012
Publicly Available Date Oct 16, 2014
Journal Journal of Archaeological Science
Print ISSN 0305-4403
Publisher Elsevier
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 39
Issue 7
Pages 2261-2271
Keywords Radiocarbon reservoir effect, freshwater, marine, Iceland, Pagan grave


Accepted Journal Article (475 Kb)

Copyright Statement
NOTICE: this is the author’s version of a work that was accepted for publication in Journal of archaeological science. Changes resulting from the publishing process, such as peer review, editing, corrections, structural formatting, and other quality control mechanisms may not be reflected in this document. Changes may have been made to this work since it was submitted for publication. A definitive version was subsequently published in Journal of archaeological science, 39, 7, 2012, 10.1016/j.jas.2012.02.012.

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