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maxilla Cavallo B press conference
The KC4 maxilla, excavated in 1927 at the site of
Kent's Cavern, Devon. (Photo: Chris Collins: NHM).
One of the Cavallo infant teeth, now identified as a modern human. This is Cavallo B.
(Photo: S. Benazzi).
Lead authors at the Nature press conference for the papers in London at the Welcome Collection, 2 Nov 2011
l-r: Higham, Stringer, Douka, Benazzi, Compton.

Nature articles on the origins of modern humans in Europe published

Members of the Unit have led two articles published in the journal Nature. Tom Higham was lead author on the first paper which was concerned with the dating and analysis of the KC4 maxilla from the site of Kent's Cavern, in Devon (above left). Radiocarbon dating was first attempted on the specimen in 1988, and a date of 30,900 ± 900 BP was obtained. Doubts were raised later because trace animal collagen glue was found on the specimen. A renewed attempt to date it failed, so Roger Jacobi and Tom Higham dated samples above and below the find spot of the maxilla instead. The data show that the find is more than 6000 years earlier than previously thought, based on a Bayesian model constructed using bone dates treated using the ORAU ultrafiltration method. Exhaustive analysis of the teeth and comparison with a dataset of modern human and Neanderthal teeth by Tim Compton and Chris Stringer at the Natural History Museum in London showed that in the majority of traits, the KC4 teeth had modern human, rather than Neanderthal characteristics.  As such it predates all previously known humans in northwestern Europe, overlaps partially with the very earliest dating evidence for the Aurignacian and tells us much about the dispersal rate of our species across the continent.

In the second paper, Katerina Douka and an international team published new data from the south of Italy. The team reanalyzed two milk teeth, which were discovered in the Grotta del Cavallo site in 1964 and previously classified as Neanderthal. They showed, using microCT scanning and extensive comparative work, that the specimens are anatomically modern human. New radiocarbon dating of personal ornaments from the same layers by Douka at the ORAU as part of her doctoral dissertation suggest that the teeth date to between 43,000-45,000 years old, making them the earliest evidence for anatomically modern people in Europe. The presence of the Campanian Ignimbrite at the site adds to the chronometric picture. The finds come from beneath this 39.3 ka BP tephra. The analysis shows the Uluzzian levels in which the teeth were found must have been deposited by modern humans, not by the Neanderthals as earlier thought. This is important because in the Uluzzian at Cavallo personal ornaments, colourants and bone tools are found, items often associated with human behavioural complexity.
Both papers complement each in providing overlapping and extremely early dates for European modern human remains and show the significant developments that derive from the application of new technological methods to fragmentary items from previously excavated sites.

The publications were widely reported in the press:

BBC news
Daily Telegraph
New Scientist
New York Times
The Independent
Discovery News

You can access the papers in Nature here:

Higham et al: The earliest evidence for anatomically modern humans in northwestern Europe

Benazzi, Douka et al:  Early dispersal of modern humans in Europe and implications for Neanderthal behaviour

This site has a 3D reconstruction of the CT-scanned KC4 maxilla.


paul haesaerts and friends Paul Mellars Conference delegates
Paul Haesaerts, Andrey Sinitsyn, Katerina Douka.
Behind Marco Peresani and Ron Pinhasi
Prof. Sir Paul Mellars, with trusty cigar. Conference delegates.

Time for the Palaeolithic conference

In April 2011 we ran a 2 day meeting to present the results of our NERC-funded Radiocarbon dating of the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition using ultrafiltration AMS project. The meeting was a closed one, with only invited collaborators on the grant coming. It was very successful but a lot of work with Tom Higham, Rachel Wood and Katerina Douka presenting a large number of talks on the results of the programme. On the Saturday we organised an Open Day of lectures, and a tour of the AMS facilities.

Attenborough in the lab Attenborough With the team
Filming in the laboratory. Chris Ramsey, Tom Higham and Sir David
Attenborough and the famous elephant bird egg.
Linda Reynard, David, Angela Bowles and Martin Humm.

Visit of Sir David Attenborough

We were honoured to have David Attenborough filming in the laboratory in November for his new programme on Madagascar. David visited Madagascar in the 1960s and was given a virtually complete egg of the now extinct Elephant bird (Aepyornis sp.) As part of the new programme, the BBC decided to obtain a direct radiocarbon age. The result was interesting (and will be revealed on the programme in January 2011). Filming at the ORAU was the last day of the shooting and prior to it Sir David and his team enjoyed a special lunch put on in the Warden's lodgings at Keble college. Staff and students at the RLAHA had the chance to chat to David during afternoon tea in the lab. 


Ornaments from the Grotte du Renne

Neanderthals and ornaments: AMS dating of the Grotte du Renne, France

The theory that later Neanderthals might have been sufficiently advanced to fashion jewellery and tools similar to those of incoming modern humans has suffered a setback. A new radiocarbon dating study, led by the ORAU, has found that an archaeological site that uniquely links Neanderthal remains to sophisticated tools and jewellery may be partially mixed. The study, published in PNAS, suggests that the position of key finds in the archaeological layers of the Grotte du Renne at Arcy-sur-Cure in France may not be trustworthy. A large series of new ultrafiltered bone radiocarbon dates were obtained from a range of cutmarked bones and artefacts from several layers through the site. The Bayesian analysis of the results suggested that around 1/3 of the results were statistical outliers, raising questions over the association of the Neanderthal human remains and the personal ornaments (some pictured above) found in the same archaeological layers. Lead author Dr Tom Higham said: ‘Our results confirm that material has moved up and down and is out of sequence in the Châtelperronian levels. We think that there has probably been some physical disturbance which has disrupted the proper sequence of the layers. This means that any chronological interpretation from this site should be viewed with caution'.

‘Our study raises questions about the link between Neanderthals and the tools and jewellery found in the Châtelperronian levels. This site is one of only two in the French Palaeolithic that seems to show a link between ornaments and Neanderthal remains. This has previously been interpreted as indicating that Neanderthals were not intellectually inferior to modern people but possessed advanced cognition and behaviour. Our work says there is a big question mark over whether this link exists.’

Press coverage of this story:
(Oxford University: "New Study questions whether Neanderthals made jewellery after all")
Science now
Los Angeles Times
The Observer
Planet Earth

The original article is published on PNAS, here:
Higham et al. 2010 PNAS article
Commentary on the paper in PNAS by PA Mellars
papyrus saqqara seeds
Samples of papyrus, independently dated
to the Egyptian historic chronology,
were amongst samples analysed in the research.
Saqqara, the step pyramid, produced  
material dating to the ruler Old Kingdom
ruler Djoser, was selected for dating.
Short-lived samples of seeds and plant
materials used in the research published
in Science.

Science paper - Radiocarbon-based chronology for Dynastic Egypt

Research by an international team led by staff at the ORAU has mapped out an accurate chronology of the kings of ancient Egypt using radiocarbon analysis of short-lived plant remains from the region. The research has now been published in the journal Science (18 June, 2010).

The research sheds light on one of the most important periods of Egyptian history documenting the various rulers of Egypt’s Old, Middle and New Kingdoms. Despite Egypt’s historical significance, in the past the dating of events has been a contentious undertaking with Egyptologists relying on various different chronologies.

The radiocarbon dating provides some resolution on the dates and nails down a chronology that is broadly in line with previous estimates. However, the new dating evidence does rule out some chronologies that have been put forward – particularly in the Old Kingdom, which is shown to be older than some scholars thought. For example, in the Old Kingdom, Djoser, one of the best known pharaohs of the Third Dynasty of Egypt, is thought to have commissioned the first of the pyramids, was found to have ruled from between 2691 and 2625 BCE, about 50-100 years earlier than some experts thought. The study also suggests that the start of the New Kingdom might be pushed back slightly to between 1570 and 1544 BC.

The research has implications for the whole region because the Egyptian chronology anchors the timing of historical events in neighbouring areas tied to the reign of particular Egyptian kings. The results will allow for more historical comparisons to be made in countries like Libya and Sudan, which have conducted radiocarbon dating techniques on places of archaeological interest in the past.

Researchers from the Universities of Oxford and Cranfield in the UK, along with a team from France, Austria and Israel, radiocarbon dated more than 200 various plants from museum collections from all over the world, including the Ashmolean and the Pitt Rivers. They used OxCal, the computer programme devised by Professor Christopher Ramsey (the leader of the Oxford team) that provides a radiocarbon calibration and analysis of archaeological and environmental chronological data. Oxford student Michael Dee combined the dates for the seeds, baskets, textiles, plant stems and fruit, which were all directly associated with the reigns of particular ancient Egyptian kings, with historical information about the order and length of each ruler to create the full chronology.

The team also undertook research on environmental samples from the Oxford University Herbaria and found minor differences in radiocarbon levels in the region – important information for future dating studies.

The publication was widely reported in the press:

BBC news
Daily Mail

You can access the paper in Science here: Radiocarbon-Based Chronology for Dynastic Egypt, Bronk Ramsey et al. 2010.


Antiquity prize

Every year the Antiquity Prize is awarded for the best article published in the journal Antiquity, and the Ben Cullen Prize is awarded for the runner up.
This year the panel of judges decided to award the 2009 Ben Cullen Prize and £500 to the article ‘A new chronological framework for prehistoric Southeast Asia based on a Bayesian model from Ban Non Wat', by Charles and Tom Higham.


BBC Filming

A film crew from the BBC has been in the laboratory filming sequences and interviews for a forthcoming series on the prehistory of the British Isles. The first programme focuses on the Early Upper Palaeolithic, with the 'Red Lady' of Paviland a central theme. The remains of the 'Red Lady' (actually a man) were excavated by William Buckland in 1823. They are earliest formal buried remains of a modern human in Britain. In 2007, the bones were redated at the lab and produced ages which were earlier than previously determined, at around 29, 000 BP. A paper on the results was published by Roger Jacobi and Tom Higham in 2008 in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Neil Oliver, from the BBC's 'Coast' series is the presenter of the programmes, which will screen in 2011. 

AMS Neil Angela Barbara Jane drilling bone
Martin and Phil with lights in the AMS control room. Neil Oliver meeting Angela and Barbara. Jane drilling bones.


LEC Logo

Radiocarbon Dating & Egyptian Chronology Symposium

The results of a Leverhulme Trust-funded project into the chronology of Ancient Egypt were the subject of a recent 2-day symposium in Oxford. The meeting was the culmination of a 3-year research programme undertaken by the Egyptian Chronology Project team based at the ORAU. The study included a new series of radiocarbon measurements on Egyptian material from collections held in Europe and the USA. The overall aim was to examine the consistency of the Egyptian chronology with dates obtained via the radiocarbon method.

An empty gallery on the upper levels of the newly-refurbished Ashmolean Museum served as the venue for the symposium. The schedule began with introductory talks by Christopher Ramsey (ORAU) and Andrew Shortland (Cranfield), a duo who later that day also presented a public lecture on the subject at the University Museum of Natural History. The first sessions of the conference covered the key methodological considerations involved in radiocarbon dating items from ancient Egypt. After this, the focus shifted to the chronology of the main Kingdoms of the Dynastic period, with the new radiocarbon evidence providing the backdrop for each session. The presentations continued with sessions on the Early Dynastic and Third Intermediate Periods, where more scientific investigation is planned, and concluded with a lively discussion on the main themes of the conference.

In all, the meeting proved very fulfilling and highly informative. By bringing together experts from museums, Egyptology departments, radiocarbon and conservation laboratories the implications of the research were able to be thoroughly scrutinized. A publication of the proceedings is planned in due course.

pub lehner fiona
At the Eagle and Child pub after the second day of the conference.
Mark Lehner (front left) and Ken Kitchen (right) and others.
David Warburton, Mark Lehner and Jo Rowland. Fiona Brock (ORAU) (with bubbly for organising the


Nature publication

Nature cover

ORAU staff co-authored a recent paper in the journal Nature. The sequence of a near-complete nuclear genome was been obtained from the tissue of a male palaeo-Eskimo from southern Greenland. ORAU dated the human remains to ~4,000 years ago. The genomic DNA was found in a permafrost-preserved lock of hair and the DNA work was spearheaded by Eske Willerslev and colleagues at the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen. The research was reported widely in the press.


20th International Radiocarbon Conference 2009, Big Island, Hawaii

hawaii picture

The 20th International Radiocarbon conference was held in Kona, Hawaii - (on the Big Island), in June 2009. The meeting was well attended by ORAU staff and students with (left to right) Anat Marom-Rotem, Tom Higham, Katerina Douka, Christopher Ramsey, Richard Staff, Rachel Wood and Mike Dee all giving papers.

Talks given included:
Posters included:
ORAU/RLAHA staff and students also contributed to other presented work at the conference:


Radiocarbon dating of Khirbat en-Nahas

ORAU staff Tom Higham and Christopher Bronk Ramsey have been working with archaeologist Professor Tom Levy (Univ. California-San Diego) for the last 5 years applying high-precision radiocarbon dating methods to sites in Jordan dating to the Iron Age. The results are very important for understanding the synchronisms between purported historical figures, such as those mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, and archaeological sites and sequences. One key site is Khirbat en-Nahas, a large copper mine in the Wadi Faynan. Recent results, published today  in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the US (PNAS) demonstrate major smelting activities in this, the region of biblical Edom (southern Jordan) during the 10th and 9th centuries BCE. A sequence of high-precision radiocarbon dates produced here in Oxford push back by 2 centuries the accepted Iron Age chronology of Edom and show that industrial-scale metal production was being practised at a time when there were significant political events taking place nearby in ancient Israel. Levy's team, co-directed by Jordanian archaeologist Mohammad Najjar, found two ancient Egyptian stone and ceramic artefacts amongst the deep excavation, clues that may link the site with the invasion of Israel by the Egyptian pharoah Shoshenq 1 in the late 10th century BCE.

The research was reported widely in the press.
Some links:


Royal Society honours Oxford researchers

Professor Robert Hedges, Deputy Director of the Laboratory of Archaeology and the History of Art at Oxford has been awarded a Royal Medal for his contribution to the rapid development of accelerator mass spectrometry and radiocarbon dating techniques.

His research focuses on the recovery of information about human and animal diets, and ancient environments, from archaeological sites. This work includes identifying surviving biological molecules and understanding how such molecules degrade over time.


Shroud of Turin Broadcast on BBC2

Christopher Ramsey, director of ORAU  has been working with a team from Performance Films Ltd making a documentary about the Shroud of Turin for the BBC.  The film (transmitted on BBC2 at 8:30pm on 22nd March) examined the evidence for the authenticity of the Shroud.  It also marked the 20th anniversary of the original carbon dating completed by the Zurich, Arizona and Oxford radiocarbon laboratories.   All three labs gave a consistent, mediaeval date for the Shroud.

The Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit collaborated in tests of a new hypothesis, put forward by John Jackson, of the Turin Shroud Center of Colorado in the United States, suggesting that the Shroud might over time have been contaminated with carbon monoxide which is naturally enriched in radiocarbon.  Dr. Jackson was the leader of a 30 person scientific team from the United States that conducted a 5-day scientific study of the Shroud in 1978.  What is significant in this particular hypothesis is that only a 2% carbon contamination from carbon monoxide is needed to move the mediaeval radiocarbon date of the Shroud to First Century.  In this collaboration, the Colorado team is responsible for preparing test samples of modern linen exposed to carbon monoxide.  Oxford is responsible for determining if contamination has actually occurred in the samples using mass spectrometry.

In the past carbon monoxide has not been thought of as a likely contaminant because it is chemically relatively inert.  The initial tests showed that in normal conditions there is no contamination at the level needed to alter radiocarbon dates at all.  Thus as yet, there is no direct evidence that the original radiocarbon measurements were not accurate.  We have yet to test whether there is anything in the specific storage conditions of the Shroud which might affect this conclusion.

Further research on the Shroud is certainly needed: it is important that we continue to investigate anything that might have affected the accuracy of the original radiocarbon tests.  It is equally important that other experts critically assess and reinterpret all the evidence which may point to an earlier date.  Only by doing this will we be able to arrive at a coherent history of the Shroud which takes into account and explains all the available information.

Further information...


Online database goes live

An online searchable database of ORAU dates has now gone live. This enables you to search for sites by region, site name or OxA number. This gives public access to all dates published in datelists or elsewhere.

Submitters can now also fill sample submission forms in online and track the results of their analyses through the lab and get details of chemical pretreatement. If submitters wish to have this information for past projects they should contact the lab and this can be arranged.

The database also allows anyone to check an OxA number against our database. If you have the OxA number for a date you can check which instrument it what measured on, when and by what method and the actual date and uncertainty. This applies to all dates published and unpublished.


Book Cited for Scholarly Impact

Front cover

Tom Higham has received the 2007 award for the best scholarly book on archaeology by the Biblical Archaeology Society, as co-editor of the book “The Bible and Radiocarbon Dating: archaeology, text and science”.

In citing Higham and his co-author Dr Tom Levy, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California at San Diego, judges for the award said the book is “critical, timely, well-produced and sure to have an immediate impact on the field.”

In a further description of the work, the award committee wrote, “The volume leaves no doubt that in light of these advances every excavator must incorporate [radiocarbon dating] into his or her research design.”

The 2007 Biblical Archaeology Society Publication Awards recognize the best books on archaeology and the Bible published in 2005 and 2006 and have been presented since 1985. The book comprises 27 chapters which stemmed from an invited meeting in Oxford organised by Levy and Higham in 2004.


OxCal4 Released

This is a completely new version of OxCal - a program which can be used for radiocarbon calibration and more general analysis of chronological information. The new version differs from version 3 in a number of ways:

For further information and access to the program see the OxCal section of this website.


NERC grant obtained

Substantial funding for a three-year research programme concerned with the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic of Europe has been obtained in the latest round of NERC standard research grants. The project is led by Tom Higham, Roger Jacobi (British Museum), Christopher Bronk Ramsey and William Daavies (now at Southampton University). Work undertaken at ORAU over the last 4-5 years has shown that significant improvements can be achieved in the AMS dating of Palaeolithic bone when using ultrafiltration during collagen extraction. Previous work has been predominantly focussed upon the British Palaeolithic, and this grant will extend the work to key French, German and Spanish sequences. 


19th International Radiocarbon Conference

The 19th International Radiocarbon Conference was held in Keble College, Oxford from the 3rd-7th April 2006, hosted by the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit. The programme included sessions on:

There was a key-note address by Prof Lord Renfrew on the first day of the conference.


Grant from the Leverhulme Trust obtained

We are pleased to announce that a substantial grant from the Leverhulme Trust has been obtained to investigate questions surrounding the Egyptian historic chronology and the reliability of radiocarbon dating of material from Egyptian archaeological contexts. The project was conceived by Christopher Bronk Ramsey, Tom Higham (ORAU) and Andrew Shortland (formerly RLAHA now Cranfield University, Shrivenham). The project team also includes Dr Stephen Harris (Oxford), Dr Ian Shaw (Liverpool) and Dr Fiona Brock (ORAU), as well as international collaborators Dr Ezra Marcus (Haifa), Dr Sturt Manning (Cornell) and Prof Walter Kutschera (Vienna). A D.Phil student (Michael Dee) has just joined the project, which runs over the next three years.


ARHC to contribute funding to the ORADS programme

We are extremely pleased to announce that from December 2004, the Arts and Humanities Research Board (ARHC, will be contributing funding to ORADS (Oxford Radiocarbon Dating Accelerator Service). This will widen the dating service to the British archaeological community to embrace more fundamentally archaeological projects requiring AMS radiocarbon dating. NERC/ARHC's ORADS panel will meet biannually to award funding for AMS dating at Oxford.


International Radiocarbon Conference 2006

We are very pleased to be able to announce that the 19th International Radiocarbon Conference will be hosted by ORAU in Oxford in spring or autumn of 2006.  We will announce further details on the conference web site.


New director and deputy director for ORAU

Dr Christopher Bronk Ramsey took over from Prof Robert Hedges as Director of ORAU.  Robert Hedges had led the lab for about 25 years and is now going to concentrate on other aspects of his research.  Fortunately for ORAU, as he remains within the Research Lab for Archaeology, he will still be able to give valuable advice on radiocarbon dating, stable isotope research etc..

Christopher Bronk Ramsey has been the Deputy Director of ORAU for the last few years with particular responsibilities for the new AMS facility.  Originally a physicist, he has a wide range of interests in radiocarbon, from archaeological applications (such as the chronology of the eastern Mediterranean) to GC-AMS and radiocarbon calibration (as the author of OxCal).

Tom Higham has now taken over as Deputy Director of ORAU.  He joined the lab a couple of years ago having been Deputy Director of the Waikato Radiocarbon Laboratory in New Zealand.  Tom is an archaeologist with over 15 years experience in many technical aspects of radiocarbon dating.  He has written many papers on the subject and is the founder of the award winning Radiocarbon WEB Info.


International Radiocarbon Conference 2003

This conference was held in Wellington, New Zealand.  Robert Hedges, Christopher Bronk Ramsey and Tom Higham attended the conference and presented nine papers:

  and contributed to a further six:

September 2002

New AMS commissioned at ORAU

A new AMS capable of much higher precision measurements, built by HVEE, started routine measurements.  The acquisition of this instrument and its supporting infrastructure was the main component of ORAU's Joint Infrastructure Fund (JIF) grant from NERC.