What is it about?

Let the 'true age' of a living organism reveal timing of life on earth of the living organism. There exists recent formal theoretical evidence, which establishes that Carbon-14 ages for fossils of living organisms do not reveal true ages of corresponding living organisms (man or animals). It would seem, on the face of things, that this finding implies non-robustness also of Carbon-14 ages for writing surfaces, such as Paper, Papyri, or Parchment, all of which are derived from either of living things (Trees or the Papyrus Plant), or living organisms (goats, cows, or sheep). This study examines whether, relative to true ages, qualitative and quantitative non-robustness of Carbon-14 ages for fossils extends to the relation between true ages for historical documents and Carbon-14 ages for self same historical documents. The formal theoretical evidence establishes that, relative to true ages for Paper, Carbon-14 ages for Paper are qualitatively and quantitatively robust, as such robust estimates for true ages of historical documents. Relative to true ages for Paper, Carbon-14 ages for Papyri are shown to be asymptotically qualitatively and quantitatively robust, as such not quite as robust as Carbon-14 ages for paper, but yet robust enough to be considered reliable estimates for true ages of historical documents that have Papyri as writing surface. If Parchments all are sourced from the same spatial location, Carbon-14 ages for Parchments have exactly the same character as those for Papyri. For comparisons of Carbon-14 ages for Parchments sourced from several different locations, however, absent corrections for estimates of effects of 'young carbon formation', Carbon-14 ages for Parchments are lacking in qualitative and quantitative robustness. Given historical usage of the three different surfaces is, in order of usage of time, Papyri, then Parchments, then Paper, boundedness of timelines for usage of Parchments by timelines for each of Papyri or Paper renders Carbon-14 ages for Parchments boundedly and asymptotically qualitatively and quantitatively robust.

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Why is it important?

If dating of historical documents is not robust, all timelines established for historical events become non-credible and unreliable. In presence of formal theoretical evidence for robustness that is 'good enough' for arrival at reliability of Carbon-14 ages as estimates for true ages of historical documents, there is reassurance that our sense of history is consistent with actual course of history.


Empirical tests of predictions of the formal theoretical model establish, consistent with predictions, greater reliability of Carbon-14 ages for Papyri, in relation to Carbon-14 ages for Parchments. Given Papyri precede Parchments as writing surface, we arrive at boundedness and asymptotic reliability of Carbon-14 ages for Parchments.

Dr Oghenovo A Obrimah
Fisk University

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Robustness of Interpretation of Carbon-14 Ages for Paper, Ink, Papyri, and Parchment, SSRN Electronic Journal, January 2020, Elsevier,
DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.3534991.
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