Radiocarbon reservoir effects in human bone collagen from northern Iceland

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

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Citations (Scopus)


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 non-terrestrial sample carbon was quantified via measurement of carbon stable isotopes (d13C) using a simple mixing model, based on d13C measurements of archaeofaunal samples. Non-terrestrial 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 pre-landnám age ranges. Measurements of nitrogen stable isotopes (d15N) 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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2261-2271
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science
Issue number7
Early online date21 Feb 2012
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2012

Bibliographical note

This research was supported by funding via the Leverhulme Trust (‘Landscape circum-landnám’ Grant: Grant Number F/00 152/F), US National Science Foundation grant 0732327 ‘IPY: Long Term Human Ecodynamics in the Norse North Atlantic: cases of sustainability, survival, and collapse’ awarded by the Office of Polar Programs Arctic Social Sciences International Polar Year program 2007-2010, the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, and the Royal Scottish Geographical Society


  • radiocarbon reservoir effect
  • freshwater
  • marine
  • Iceland
  • Pagan grave


Dive into the research topics of 'Radiocarbon reservoir effects in human bone collagen from northern Iceland'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this