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 its 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. The Ancient Order of Protectors will sometimes be protecting them.
Unrelated to The Artifact.
Common categories, not mutually exclusive:
- Amplifier Artifact: An item that increases your already existing powers.
- Animating Artifact: An item that imbues life or sentience onto inanimate objects.
- Artifact Domination: An item that mind-controls its wielder.
- Artifact of Attraction: An item that everyone is obsessed with.
- Artifact of Death: An item that kills its wielder.
- Artifact of Doom: An Always Chaotic Evil item.
- Artifact of Immortality: An item that grants Immortality.
- Counterpart Artifacts: Artifacts that complete a set together.
- Instant Allegiance Artifact: An item that can indoctrinate others.
- Famously Mundane, Fictionally Magical: A Real Life item with actual magic powers and origins.
- Protective Charm: An item that shields its wielder from harm.
- Public Domain Artifact: Famous items used throughout all of fiction.
- Summoning Artifact: An item that can use Summon Magic.
- Upgrade Artifact: An item that makes you an Instant Expert in its use.
- Artifact Collection Agency: An organization that hunts and contains special items.
- Imported Alien Phlebotinum: This item came from space.
- Set Bonus: Having all of the items in a set is better than only having some of them.