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Of course then you'd look at the Empire State Building's style and you'd compare it to the Chrysler Building, and you'd compare it to the Citicorp Building, which is considerably different.And you'd work out the different styles in the evolution of Manhattan itself.So it occurred to me that if we could take these small samples, we could radiocarbon date them, not with conventional radiocarbon dating so much, but recently there's been a development in carbon-14 dating where they use atomic accelerators to count the disintegration rate of the carbon-14 atoms, atom by atom. We weren't damaging the pyramids, because these are tiny little flecks and it's a very strange experience to be crawling over a monument as big as Khufu's, looking for a bit of charcoal that might be as big as the fingernail on your small finger.We noted, not only the samples of charcoal, sometimes there was reed.We study the pottery and how it changes over the broad sweep, some 3,000 years.There are people who are experts in all these different periods of pottery or Egyptian ceramics.
NOVA: Can you give us an example of a single aspect of material culture, from ancient Egypt that you might use as a starting point for dating the pyramids? All the pottery you find at Giza looks like the pottery of the time of Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure, the kings who built these pyramids in what we call the Fourth Dynasty, the Old Kingdom.So in effect, you're counting the carbon-14 in an organic specimen.And by virtue of the rate of disintegration of carbon-14 atoms and the amount of carbon-14 in a sample, you can know how old it is.But by and large, you would, in the broad scope, be able to put the Empire State Building and Manhattan in an overall context of development here in the United States and in the modern 19th and 20th centuries.And you would know that it didn't date, for example, to the colonial period of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, because nothing you'd find in the Empire State Building ruins, around it, in the dirt surrounding it—maybe it's a stump sticking up above the sloping ruins of Manhattan—nothing really looks like the flowing blue china, or the other kinds of utensils and material culture that they used in the time of the American Revolution.
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So to bring it down to a level that almost anybody can understand, if, for example, you were digging around the base of the Empire State Building, assuming that it was a ruin and the streets around it in Manhattan were filled with dirt, and you started finding ceramics that were characteristic of the Elizabethan era or say the Colonial period here in the United States, that would be one thing.