Non-parametric calibration of multiple related radiocarbon determinations and their calendar age summarisation

30 Sep 2021  ·  Timothy J Heaton ·

Due to fluctuations in past radiocarbon ($^{14}$C) levels, calibration is required to convert $^{14}$C determinations $X_i$ into calendar ages $\theta_i$. In many studies, we wish to calibrate a set of related samples taken from the same site or context, which have calendar ages drawn from the same shared, but unknown, density $f(\theta)$. Calibration of $X_1, \ldots, X_n$ can be improved significantly by incorporating the knowledge that the samples are related. Furthermore, summary estimates of the underlying shared $f(\theta)$ can provide valuable information on changes in population size/activity over time. Most current approaches require a parametric specification for $f(\theta)$ which is often not appropriate. We develop a rigorous non-parametric Bayesian approach using a Dirichlet process mixture model, with slice sampling to address the multimodality typical within $^{14}$C calibration. Our approach simultaneously calibrates the set of $^{14}$C determinations and provides a predictive estimate for the underlying calendar age of a future sample. We show, in a simulation study, the improvement in calendar age estimation when jointly calibrating related samples using our approach, compared with calibration of each $^{14}$C determination independently. We also illustrate the use of the predictive calendar age estimate to provide insight on activity levels over time using three real-life case studies.

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