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Radioactive Decay

Radioactive isotopes breakdown into different elements. There are three primary ways this occurs.

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Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art (Inventar Nr. 49.7.40)
Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Manner_of_Johannes_Vermeer_001.jpg?uselang=gsw
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

For many years, this painting was believed to be an original work of art created by the 17th-century artist Johannes Vermeer. It was even displayed in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, the painting is a fake. It was actually created in the 1920s by a very skilled forger.

Why It Matters

  • In addition to artworks, archeological artifacts, or objects made by earlier humans, have also been faked. Generally, the fake artwork or “artifake” is created to make money. Real artworks and artifacts often sell for very large sums. Therefore, people who unknowingly buy fakes may lose a lot of money.
  • How are the fakes detected? Some can be detected by experts just by looking closely at them. But many have been created too skillfully to be detected this way. Instead, they must be analyzed by scientific methods.
  • Credit: The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei.
    Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Eugenio_Lucas_Vel?zquez_-_A_City_on_a_Rock.jpg
    License: CC BY-NC 3.0

    Originally known as one of Goya's paintings, this work of art is now thought to have been painted by a follower of Goya [Figure2]

  • There are many scientific methods that can be used to estimate the actual age of an artwork or artifact. One method is radioactive dating. Watch this short video to learn how radioactive dating works: 


Show What You Know

Learn more about using science to detect fake artworks and artifacts at the links below. Then answer the questions that follow.

  1. What is the half-life of a radioactive element?
  2. How does radioactive dating work?
  3. What is the half-life of radioactive carbon-14? What time period can be dated with radiocarbon dating?
  4. Why is the period from 1650 to 1950 difficult to date precisely with radiocarbon dating?
  5. What is the “bomb effect” in radiocarbon dating? How is it used?
  6. What are two methods that use X rays to date artworks and artifacts?
  7. What is the best way to reduce errors in estimating ages of artworks and artifacts?

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Image Attributions

  1. [1]^ Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art (Inventar Nr. 49.7.40); Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Manner_of_Johannes_Vermeer_001.jpg?uselang=gsw; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  2. [2]^ Credit: The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei.; Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Eugenio_Lucas_Vel?zquez_-_A_City_on_a_Rock.jpg; License: CC BY-NC 3.0

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