Skip to main content

Experimental Study on the Origin of Cremated Bone Apatite Carbon

  • C M Hüls (a1), H Erlenkeuser (a1), M-J Nadeau (a1), P M Grootes (a1) and N Andersen (a1)...

Bones that have undergone burning at high temperatures (i.e. cremation) no longer contain organic carbon. Lanting et al. (2001) proposed that some of the original structural carbonate, formed during bioapatite formation, survives. This view is based on paired radiocarbon dating of cremated bone apatite and contemporary charcoal. However, stable carbon isotope composition of carbonate in cremated bones is consistently light compared to the untreated material and is closer to the δ13C values seen in C3 plant material. This raises the question of the origin of carbonate carbon in cremated bone apatite. That is, does the isotope signal reflect an exchange of carbon with the local cremation atmosphere and thus with carbon from the burning fuel, or is it caused by isotopic fractionation during cremation?

To study the changes in carbon isotopes (14C, 13C) of bone apatite during burning up to 800 °, a modern bovine bone was exposed to a continuous flow of an artificial atmosphere (basically a high-purity O2/N2 gas mix) under defined conditions (temperature, gas composition). To simulate the influence of the fuel carbon available under real cremation conditions, fossil CO2 was added at different concentrations. To yield cremated bone apatite properties similar to archaeological cremated bones, in terms of crystallographic criteria, water vapor had to be added to the atmosphere in the oven. Infrared vibrational spectra reveal large increases in crystal size and loss of carbonate upon cremation. The isotope results indicate an effective carbon exchange between bone apatite carbonate and CO2 in the combustion gases depending on temperature and CO2 concentration. 14C dates on archaeological cremated bone apatite may thus suffer from an old-wood effect. Paired 13C and 14C values indicate that in addition to this exchange, isotope fractionation between CO2 and carbonate, and admixture of carbon from other sources such as possibly collagen or atmospheric CO2, may play a role in determining the final composition of the apatite carbonate.

    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      Experimental Study on the Origin of Cremated Bone Apatite Carbon
      Available formats
      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      Experimental Study on the Origin of Cremated Bone Apatite Carbon
      Available formats
      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      Experimental Study on the Origin of Cremated Bone Apatite Carbon
      Available formats
Corresponding author
Corresponding author. Email:
Hide All
Berger, R, Horney, AG, Libby, WF. 1964. Radiocarbon dating of bone and shell from their organic components. Science 144(3621):9991001.
Bocherens, H. 2002. Preservation of isotopic signals (13C, 15N) in Pleistocene mammals. In: Katzenberg, A, editor. Biogeochemical Approaches to Paleodietary Analysis. New York: Kluwer Academic. p 6587.
Bottinga, Y. 1969. Calculated fractionation factors for carbon and hydrogen isotope exchange in the system calcite-carbon dioxide-graphite-methane-hydrogen-water vapor. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 33(1):4964.
Cazalbou, S, Combes, C, Eichert, D, Rey, C. 2004. Adaptive physico-chemistry of bio-related calcium phosphates. Journal of Materials Chemistry 14:2148–53.
De Mulder, G, Van Strydonck, M. 2004. Radiocarbon dates of two urnfields at Velzeke (Zottegem, East Flanders Belgium). In: Higham, T, Bronk Ramsey, C, Owen, C, editors. Radiocarbon and Archaeology. Proceedings of the 4th Symposium 14C an Archaeology, Oxford, 9–14 April 2002. Oxford University School of Archaeology Monograph. p 247–62.
De Mulder, G, Van Strydonck, M, Boudin, M, Lerclercq, W, Paridaens, N, Warmenbol, E. 2007. Reevaluation of the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age chronology of the western Belgian urnfields based on 14C dating. Radiocarbon 49(2):499514.
Dowker, SEP, Elliott, JC. 1979. Infrared absorption bands from NCO and NCN2– in heated carbonate-containing apatites prepared in the presence of NH4+ ions. Calcified Tissue International 29(1):177–8.
Elliott, JC. 2002. Calcium phosphate biominerals. In: Kohn, MJ, Rakovan, J, Hughes, JM, editors. Phosphates: Geochemical, Geobiological, and Material Importance. Reviews in Mineralogy & Geochemistry 48:427–54.
Enzo, S, Bazzoni, M, Mazzarello, V, Piga, G, Bandiera, P, Melis, P. 2007. A study by thermal treatment and X-ray powder diffraction on burnt fragmented bones from tombs II, IV and IX belonging to the hypogeic necropolis of “Sa Figu” near Ittiri, Sassari (Sardinia, Italy). Journal of Archaeological Science 34(10):1731–7.
Habelitz, S, Pascual, L, Duran, A. 2001. Transformation of tricalcium phosphate into apatite by ammonia treatment. Journal of Materials Science 36(17):4131–5.
Lanting, AL, Brindley, JN. 2000. An exciting new development: calcined bones can be 14C-dated. The European Archaeologist 13:78
Lanting, JN, Aerts-Bijma, AT, van der Plicht, J. 2001. Dating of cremated bones. Radiocarbon 43(2A):249–54.
Lee-Thorp, J, Sponheimer, M. 2003. Three case studies used to reassess the reliability of fossil bone and enamel isotope signals for paleodietary studies. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 22(3):208–26.
LeGeros, RZ, Trautz, OR, Klein, E, LeGeros, JP. 1969. Two types of carbonate substitution in the apatite structure. Experientia 25(1):57.
Nadeau, M-J, Schleicher, M, Grootes, PM, Erlenkeuser, H, Gottdang, A, Mous, DJW, Sarnthein, JM, Willkomm, H. 1997. The Leibniz-Labor AMS facility at the Christian-Albrechts-University, Kiel, Germany. Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research B 123(1–4):2230.
Nadeau, M-J, Grootes, PM, Schleicher, M, Hasselberg, P, Rieck, A, Bitterling, M. 1998. Sample throughput and data quality at the Leibniz-Labor AMS Facility. Radiocarbon 40(2):239–45.
Nadeau, M-J, Grootes, PM, Voelker, A, Bruhn, F, Duhr, A, Oriwall, A. 2001. Carbonate 14C background: Does it have multiple personalities? Radiocarbon 43(2A):169–76.
Naysmith, P, Scott, EM, Cook, GT, Heinemeier, J, van der Plicht, J, Van Strydonck, M, Bronk Ramsey, C, Grootes, PM, Freeman, SPHT. 2007. A cremated bone inter-comparison study. Radiocarbon 49(2):403–8.
Olsen, J, Heinemeier, J, Bennike, P, Krause, C, Hornstrup, KM, Thrane, H. 2008. Characterisation and blind testing of radiocarbon dating of cremated bone. Journal of Archaeological Science 35(3):791800.
Person, A, Bocherens, H, Saliège, J-F, Paris, F, Zeitoun, V, Gérard, M. 1995. Early diagenetic evolution of bone phosphate: an X-ray diffractometry analysis. Journal of Archaeological Science 22(2):211–21.
Piga, G, Malgosa, A, Thompson, TJU, Enzo, S. 2008. A new calibration of the XRD technique for the study of archaeological burned human remains. Journal of Archaeological Science 35(8):2171–8.
Scheele, N, Hoefs, J. 1992. Carbon isotope fractionation between calcite, graphite and CO2: an experimental study. Contributions to Mineralogy and Petrology 112(1):3545.
Shipman, P, Foster, G, Schoeninger, M. 1984. Burnt bones and teeth: an experimental study of color, morphology, crystal structure and shrinkage. Journal of Archaeological Science 11(4):307–25.
Skinner, HCW. 2005. Biominerals. Mineralogical Magazine 69(5):621–41.
Stiner, MC, Kuhn, SL, Weiner, S, Bar-Yosef, O. 1995. Differential burning, recrystallization, and fragmentation of archaeological bone. Journal of Archaeological Science 22(2):223–37.
Surovell, TA. 2000. Radiocarbon dating of bone apatite by step heating. Geoarchaeology 15(6):591608.
Tamers, MA, Pearson, FJ. 1965. Validity of radiocarbon dates on bones. Nature 208(5015):1053–5.
Trueman, CNG, Behrensmeyer, AK, Tuross, N, Weiner, S. 2004. Mineralogical and compositional changes in bones exposed on soil surfaces in Amboseli National Park, Kenya: diagenetic mechanisms and the role of sediment pore fluids. Journal of Archaeological Science 31(6):721–39.
Van Strydonck, M, Boudin, M, Hoefkens, M, De Mulder, G. 2005. 14C-dating of cremated bones, why does it work? Lunula Archaeologia Protohistorica XIII 18:148.
Van Strydonck, M, Boudin, M, De Mulder, G. 2010. The origin of the carbon in bone apatite of cremated bones. Radiocarbon 52(2–3):578–86.
Weiner, S, Bar-Yosef, O. 1990. States of preservation of bones from prehistoric sites in the Near East: a survey. Journal of Archaeological Science 17(2):187–96.
Zazzo, A, Saliège, J-F, Person, A, Boucher, H. 2009. Radiocarbon dating of calcined bones: Where does the carbon come from? Radiocarbon 51(2):112.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

  • ISSN: 0033-8222
  • EISSN: 1945-5755
  • URL: /core/journals/radiocarbon
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed