By knowing how much carbon 14 is left in a sample, the age of the organism when it died can be known.
Plants and animals assimilate carbon 14 from carbon dioxide throughout their lifetimes.
The radiocarbon age of a certain sample of unknown age can be determined by measuring its carbon 14 content and comparing the result to the carbon 14 activity in modern and background samples.
The principal modern standard used by radiocarbon dating labs was the Oxalic Acid I obtained from the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Maryland. Around 95% of the radiocarbon activity of Oxalic Acid I is equal to the measured radiocarbon activity of the absolute radiocarbon standard—a wood in 1890 unaffected by fossil fuel effects.
When the stocks of Oxalic Acid I were almost fully consumed, another standard was made from a crop of 1977 French beet molasses.
The new standard, Oxalic Acid II, was proven to have only a slight difference with Oxalic Acid I in terms of radiocarbon content.