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Carbon-14 moves up the food chain as animals eat plants and as predators eat other animals. This unstable isotope starts to break down into nitrogen-14.It takes 5,730 years for half the carbon-14 to change to nitrogen; this is the half-life of carbon-14.

It is possible, particularly in dry, desert climates, for organic materials such as dead trees to remain in their natural state for hundreds of years before people use them as firewood, after which they become part of the archaeological record.By measuring the proportion of carbon-14 in organic material, scientists can determine an organic artifact's date of death.Because the half-life of carbon-14 is short, the older a specimen is, the greater the margin of error becomes.The standard margin of error is plus or minus 50 years.Because of this, the technique usually cannot pinpoint the date of a site better than historic records and previous knowledge of the site.

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