Bayesian 14C-rationality, Heisenberg Uncertainty, and Fourier Transform

The Beauty of Radiocarbon Calibration

  • Bernhard Weninger University Cologne, Institute of Prehistory, Germany
  • Kevan Edinborough University of Melbourne, Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences, Australia
Keywords: radiocarbon calibration, Fourier transform, Born probability, Santorini


Following some 30 years of radiocarbon research during which the mathematical principles of 14C-calibration have been on loan to Bayesian statistics, here they are returned to quantum physics. The return is based on recognition that 14C-calibration can be described as a Fourier transform. Following its introduction as such, there is need to reconceptualize the probabilistic 14C-analysis. The main change will be to replace the traditional (one-dimensional) concept of 14C-dating probability by a two-dimensional probability. This is entirely analogous to the definition of probability in quantum physics, where the squared amplitude of a wave function defined in Hilbert space provides a measurable probability of finding the corresponding particle at a certain point in time/space, the so-called Born rule. When adapted to the characteristics of 14C-calibration, as it turns out, the Fourier transform immediately accounts for practically all known so-called quantization properties of archaeological 14C-ages, such as clustering, age-shifting, and amplitude-distortion. This also applies to the frequently observed chronological lock-in properties of larger data sets, when analysed by Gaussian wiggle matching (on the 14C-scale) just as by Bayesian sequencing (on the calendar time-scale). Such domain-switching effects are typical for a Fourier transform. They can now be understood, and taken into account, by the application of concepts and interpretations that are central to quantum physics (e.g. wave diffraction, wave-particle duality, Heisenberg uncertainty, and the correspondence principle). What may sound complicated, at first glance, simplifies the construction of 14C-based chronologies. The new Fourier-based 14C-analysis supports chronological studies on previously unachievable geographic (continental) and temporal (Glacial-Holocene) scales; for example, by temporal sequencing of hundreds of archaeological sites, simultaneously, with minimal need for development of archaeological prior hypotheses, other than those based on the geo-archaeological law of stratigraphic superposition. As demonstrated in a variety of archaeological case studies, just one number, defined as a gauge-probability on a scale 0–100%, can be used to replace a stacked set of subjective Bayesian priors.


Download data is not yet available.
How to Cite
WeningerB., & EdinboroughK. (2020). Bayesian 14C-rationality, Heisenberg Uncertainty, and Fourier Transform. Documenta Praehistorica, 47, 536-559.