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But that assumes that the amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere was constant — any variation would speed up or slow down the clock.

The clock was initially calibrated by dating objects of known age such as Egyptian mummies and bread from Pompeii; work that won Willard Libby the 1960 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

The Lamont-Doherty scientists conducted their analyses on samples of coral drilled from a reef off the island of Barbados.

The samples represented animals that lived at various times during the last 30,000 years. Alan Zindler, a professor of geology at Columbia University who is a member of the Lamont-Doherty research group, said age estimates using the carbon dating and uranium-thorium dating differed only slightly for the period from 9,000 years ago to the present.

The best gauge they have found is dendrochronology: the measurement of age by tree rings.

To preserve these articles as they originally appeared, The Times does not alter, edit or update them.But the tree ring record goes no further, so scientists have sought other indicators of age against which carbon dates can be compared.One such indicator is the uranium-thorium dating method used by the Lamont-Doherty group.But when a plant or animal dies, it can no longer accumulate fresh carbon 14, and the supply in the organism at the time of death is gradually depleted.Since the rate of depletion has been accurately determined (half of any given amount of carbon 14 decays in 5,730 years), scientists can calculate the time elapsed since something died from its residual carbon 14.

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