The half-life of an isotope like C14 is the time it takes for half of it to decay away: in C14, every 5,730 years, half of it is gone.
So, if you measure the amount of C14 in a dead organism, you can figure out how long ago it stopped exchanging carbon with its atmosphere.
We should see some interesting results in the very near future.
The New Zealand curve is representative for the Southern Hemisphere, the Austrian curve is representative for the Northern Hemisphere. This makes it possible to tell the age of substances that contain carbon. Dates obtained are usually written as before present ('present' is 1950).
Reliable estimates are possible, but with large /- factors.