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A form of phlebotinum, an Ancient Artifact is some object that bestows special abilities on its possessor. Unlike some types of phlebotinum, Ancient Artifacts are not naturally occurring: they are constructed. (The word "artifact" literally means "something made by humans," and contains the same root as "artificial.")
While any tool could be said to "bestow abilities on its user," an artifact is no mere tool. An artifact is both rare and extraordinary, and the abilities it grants are beyond-- often far beyond-- the scope of the technology available in the story. Artifacts are also invariably old-- the older, the better. Newly invented super-science devices, no matter how awesome, would not usually be called artifacts.
Some artifacts are not tools, and don't need to be actively used-- they influence the world by their very existence. This tends to be true more of cursed artifacts, which bring bad luck or worse to their owners.
Most of the time, artifacts are also unique. That is, while a story may have many artifacts, each one will be the only one of it's kind: there is only one Excalibur, one Gáe Bulg, and one Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi.
Artifacts are common in the Fantasy genre, where their power is usually derived from supernatural sources. The tools and weapons of the gods are textbook examples of artifacts, as are certain religious relics. Supremely powerful instruments of mortal magic-- usually described as extremely dangerous or difficult to create, or made by long-forgotten means, in order to explain their scarcity-- are another type of artifact.
Artifacts aren't limited to the fantasy genre though: they can often be found in any adventure story, including those with contemporary settings. In non-fantasy works, artifacts are frequently the forgotten technology of a lost civilization, or of Ancient Astronauts. Imported Alien Phlebotinum can serve a similar narrative purpose.
Because of their special powers, artifacts are often widely sought-after, making them a classic form of MacGuffin. The Adventurer Archaeologist in particular, spends about 99.2% of his time (onscreen) looking for them.
Unrelated to The Artifact.
Common categories, not mutually exclusive:
- Amplifier Artifact
- Artifact of Attraction
- Artifact of Death
- Artifact of Doom
- Artifact of Immortality (a.k.a. Immortality Inducer)
- Instant Allegiance Artifact
- Famously Mundane, Fictionally Magical
- Protective Charm
- Public Domain Artifact
- Summoning Artifact
- Upgrade Artifact