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The world is similar to that in Prince of Thorns: namely, so far in the future that civilization has essentially reset, and is back to a medieval level of technology and culture. However, there are still rare pieces of modern civilization scattered around. A type of trade has emerged where Artifact Hunters travel the world, finding leftover artifacts and selling them. What I want to know is, What characteristics will define items as valuable, useful or desirable?

Constraints

  1. No electricity or technology works: Anything electrical is too delicate to still be in working order, and any powers sources have long since vanished/stopped working.
  2. Use should be different than modern usage: Anything that works the exact same today as it would in a medeival setting would already be available, created etc. A modern knife might be sharper, but it's still just a knife.
  3. Doesn't have to be practical: While use is a key part, the ultimate criteria is if something is sell-able, and at a high price.
  4. Society has forgotten modern times: People know of the artifacts lying around, but any memory of modern/post-modern times is basically myth, and no scientific or cultural knowledge has been passed down.

More Details

Humanity reached a peak of technology at a few hundred years from our current time. Not far enough that there was anything super revolutionary, but more people, bigger bombs, better weapons etc. Some cataclismic event, human triggered, happened. Involved widespread destruction, think nuclear war but not necessarily radiation poisoning. The few, <.01% survivors were people already somewhat isolated from society. Cities and towns are gone, blown up, but anything more than 100 miles from nearest town survived. Fast-forward a few thousand years

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    $\begingroup$ Does ALL electricity not work? We could just build our own batteries via lemons and potatos + metal wire... $\endgroup$ – Aify Jun 26 '15 at 18:32
  • $\begingroup$ You just reminded me of a great point I forgot to mention! Thanks! But no, people have also lost knowledge of previous times. $\endgroup$ – Cain Jun 26 '15 at 18:42
  • $\begingroup$ But at some point someone's bound to start studying science, and eventually they'll rediscover the way things work - eg: the lemon can somehow power a small clock, and then one thing leads to another and you can build new batteries and stuff. You have to explain WHY none of it works. $\endgroup$ – Aify Jun 26 '15 at 18:49
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    $\begingroup$ I don't see a way this is not idea generation. Can you explain how a single best answer will be selected? $\endgroup$ – Samuel Jun 26 '15 at 18:58
  • $\begingroup$ @Aify In the future science might be redeveloped, but at the current time it doesn't exist, and isn't in developement. Additionally, we're talking a long period of time, anything delicate like circuit boards, lightting filaments etc will have dissolved already. $\endgroup$ – Cain Jun 26 '15 at 19:06

13 Answers 13

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The characteristics should be that:

  • they can't be created without modern machines or processes
  • AND/OR they're made with materials that aren't available in the middle ages
  • AND/OR they're based on principles that require knowledge of physics.

So my proposals are

  • left-over rolls of new velcro straps
  • very thin filaments made of very resistant synthetic polymers or metals
  • cloth made by synthetic fiber (especially thermal padding)
  • tires and wheels (like the ones in modern animal-powered carts still used in some poor countries, or from motorbikes), other mechanical steel or aluminimum vehicles parts, these greatly help transportation, wooden carts being slow and breaking down was a big issue back then, so these would give a big advantage
  • steel beams, good for defensive construction
  • binoculars and other optical mechanical devices, these weren't available until 1600 or so in our world which is 100 years after the official end of the middle ages, yet are extremely useful for navigation and warfare (both observation and aiming) and geographic mapping
  • ship hulls made of durable materials (I don't know about their longevity)
  • any remain of modern cannons or steel tubes, in the last 2 centuries of the middle ages cannon and handcannons were already on battlefields, given the difficulty in manufacturing these by hand and making them safe, finding easy-to-adapt tubes would be a big help.
  • any post-middle ages antique weapon out of a museum that doesn't need anything more than black powder and small rocks to shoot, these could be operated.
  • portable mechanical watches, no words needed
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  • $\begingroup$ anything that requires precision manufacturing, like mechanical clocks and watches $\endgroup$ – Dan Pichelman Jun 26 '15 at 22:45
  • $\begingroup$ @DanPichelman I'm adding that to the answer, $\endgroup$ – Formagella Jun 26 '15 at 22:50
  • $\begingroup$ With steel beams, wouldn't people prefer to melt the steel and re-cast it as, say, swords, rather than use it in a wall where stone would do? $\endgroup$ – Dronz Jun 27 '15 at 17:35
  • $\begingroup$ well medieval metal casting isn't like the modern one, I guess it depends on the specifics... $\endgroup$ – Formagella Jun 28 '15 at 21:23
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Aluminium

It may be just a metal, but its production depends mostly on the availability of electricity. Even back in the 1880's it was for a time more valueable than gold. Since it is light and does not rust like iron, there could be any number of uses for it - even some rather spectacular ones like thermite.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yes, Aluminum as a "resource" like other metals, but not naturally occurring ore. A future civilization won't have oil etc. as commonly noted, but will have easier access to metal. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jun 30 '15 at 23:05
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Plastics and Glass

With the primary characteristic being time - that they'll still be around. Most modern products aren't designed to last, and will decompose/rust away relatively rapidly, certainly within a couple of hundred years.

On the other hand, glass basically doesn't decompose at all. Even broken glass will generally hang around, and could be used in the future as a tool or weapon because of how sharp it is.

Plastics do decompose, but they last a lot longer than most other products. A plastic bottle can be a re-usable canteen, a laundry basket can be used to haul supplies around, etc.

Two other outliers on that list of interest:

  1. Monofilament Fishing Line - can be used as a strong and versatile rope.
  2. Diapers - archaeological value, or as curiosities for the rich.
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  • $\begingroup$ Glass is an interesting answer, but most plastics don't even last a year in the sun. $\endgroup$ – Kevin Krumwiede Jun 26 '15 at 22:53
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    $\begingroup$ ABS (car bumpers) last for decades in the sun. $\endgroup$ – slebetman Jun 27 '15 at 7:19
  • $\begingroup$ Glass has been used for over 5000yrs now. It's definitely not a new technologie. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_glass $\endgroup$ – Sempie Jun 29 '15 at 7:05
  • $\begingroup$ @Sempie: It's not new, no. But it needs a civilization to make, so in a post-apoc scenario it's not going to be easy to make new glass. Also, I suspect modern glasses will be tougher/stronger than what they could make on their own, it's not like all glass is identical. $\endgroup$ – Dan Smolinske Jun 29 '15 at 17:03
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Two main themes come to mind, the first is probably the sort of thing you're looking for and the second one is in my mind far more realistically important.

Caches of Antibiotics and Multi-Vitamins. Sure, lots of it could be expired and no longer useful, but I'd imagine that these two categories could hold out for a fair bit, some of it maybe even a few thousand years suggested in your comment. More specific medicines would be less useful presumably because expert knowledge would be required on when and how to use them (and may degrade more rapidly). But these two could just be used indiscriminately when people get sick and many times you'd see miraculous restoration. They would likely build a strong enough reputation that the placebo effect could go a long way on its own. [One problem would be how they would distinguish these categories from the other inert or possibly deadly pills. Or work out dosages.]

A Large Cache of Books (possibly a library) I'm assuming that the language has been heavily modified beyond comprehension of basic writing (though I doubt this premise is realistic). A library or even certain household's caches of books, (and I doubt they'd all be blown up) if well preserved, would give access to children's books where the scribes could scaffold introductory knowledge of the language, from there dictionaries could open up the rest of the books in the language. Then, the real important books would be science textbooks. These could allow the training of a class of reverse engineers who could then unlock all those old useless things you can't plug in any more. And even likely the construction of a power source.

In a few years they could be taking apart those useless electronics to see how they tick, within a decade fixing them, within a century making them. It might be a subject you want to avoid for your plot. But it might be interesting to explore as well.

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  • $\begingroup$ Note that I've particularly ignored guns, metals, and jewelry as I think these are the obvious or intuitive answers alluded to in the question. And further, I don't think there should be a problem with modern books surviving for so long. Especially if the structure was covered with sand or ice, probably not ridiculous in a nuclear wasteland. $\endgroup$ – Adam Phelps Jun 27 '15 at 15:40
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    $\begingroup$ I was going to answer "a full encyclopedia" but I doubt you can beat a library. $\endgroup$ – Darth Wedgius Jun 27 '15 at 18:33
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, an encyclopedia would be that happy middle ground. Where it's more likely to be found, but not quite as useful, not only for scaffolding language but also for learning beyond the basics in any field. $\endgroup$ – Adam Phelps Jun 28 '15 at 2:07
  • $\begingroup$ Written languages change a lot; try reading the Canterbury Tales in Middle English. Even Shakespeare, which dates to about 200 years after Chaucer, is pretty tough sledding. And that is just English. If the successor culture is not based on English speaking people, the problem is compounded (think about how useful an ancient Sanskrit library would be to you right now). A library might be useful, or it might be as indecipherable as Linear A tablets from ancient Minoan civilization. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Jun 30 '15 at 0:36
  • $\begingroup$ I'm familiar with the way languages change. This is why the children's books are important, they are typically built around learning the language and learning to read. I'm pretty familiar with this as I teach English in China. The problem with the few (possible) written languages that we can't translate is all we have is excluded to one or a few documents. If we had some books designed to teach the language they would be no problem. $\endgroup$ – Adam Phelps Jun 30 '15 at 1:49
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There should be a roaring trade in mining for old laptops, PC, tablets, cellphones etc.

The devices themselves are useless, since there is no electricity for them to work and their hard drives would have been demagnetized ages ago (flash memories might still work, bit without electricity they are just interesting pieces of jewelry).

The main reason to look for them is they have something like 300X the amount of gold in them as any similarly sized piece of ore, and are therefor the most valuable ancient artifacts by weight. The circuit boards and chips that are not melted down also make interesting decorations and jewelry for very high classed aristocrats, and having a set of Intel earrings or an AMD pendant would be the mark of distinction for a Baroness or Queen.

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Contents of a post-apocolyptic gypsy merchant cart...

Knowledge, in the form of hand written transcriptions of books for blacksmiths, fletchers, midwives, etc.

Maps, again hand-transcribed.

Pencils and pencil-sharpeners

Blank Paper

Toilet Paper

Fishing Hooks

Sharpening Stones

Craftsman hand tools (since they're still under warranty)

Nails and Screws

Copper tubing

nylon rope

Sewing needles and thread

costume jewelry

belt-buckles, clasps and buttons

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    $\begingroup$ Knowledge would have been my answer; albeit more in the form of encyclopedias. The question is, how do we make them survive for thousands of years? $\endgroup$ – Mr Lister Jun 27 '15 at 11:01
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    $\begingroup$ the same way that ancient books have always survived... by transcription. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Jun 27 '15 at 12:36
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  • Vinyl kitchen tiles, for lightweight vests, tough to cut through
  • Fiberglass sheets, to build canoes and shelters.
  • Rubber tires, to carry liquids, for milling, and even for weapon delivery using timers and downhill targets.
  • Refrigerator magnet strips, for binding cloth on royalty/priests.
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Wires

I read somewhere that there are about 1.5 billion miles of telephone line strung across the United States. That's just telephone wire! And just the United States! Think of how many millions of miles of power lines, fiber optic cables, coaxial cables, ethernet cables, etc, there must be in the world. I'm sure there's a hard number, but unfortunately, I don't have the time to research.

The obvious use is rope. Braid some wire together, and you have pretty strong rope. Also as metal working increases, the copper can be melted down and reused...though admittedly there will probably be better sources for metal by that time. Data centers would be of particular archeological interest.

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  • $\begingroup$ There is no easier or better source for material then recycling. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Jun 27 '15 at 23:01
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In medieval times, simple luxuries that we take for granted now were either rare or non-existent. The items below are extremely common in our time. Almost every family today would be able to afford them, yet they would be exceedingly rare and valuable in the middle ages.

Modern Cutlery

Most people in medieval times did not own eating utensils such as forks, knives, and spoons. Even if you were fortunate enough to own a set of flatware, it would not be very good quality. The utensils would be heavy, crude, and prone to rusting. Knives were extremely valuable. Very often the same knives used to whittle wood, skin and gut game, etc. and would also be used as an eating utensil. Obviously, most people would never do that today. Only the noble classes were able to afford anything close to what we have today because the utensils had to be made out of metals which did not corrode such as silver and gold.

Modern stainless steel utensils are ubiquitous with any household. There is a good chance that they would be able to survive to this time.

Pots and pans

Again, here is another luxury we have which most people in medieval times did not have. Any surviving examples would be sought after.

Fine china and crockery

Unless these items get broken, they can last nearly unchanged for thousands of years. Plates and dishes at that time were very crude. A set of porcelain dishes would probably worth more than their weight in gold.

Glassware

Here is another category of items which would be very valuable. A common person would be very lucky to own a single glass, let alone a whole set of them.

Footware

Most people today own several pairs of shoes for different occasions. The majority of people of that time went barefoot.

Firearms

Any type of gun would give a person a very big advantage. It might be possible that functioning guns and ammo would survive if they were stored underground in bunkers.

Wash basins and tubs

The majority of the people in medieval times did not bathe more than once or twice a year.

Toothbrushes

Most people did not brush their teeth at all, and often suffered abscesses which could prove fatal.

Toiletries

Most people of that time didn't smell very fresh. Colognes, perfumes, soaps, etc. would have been a luxury. The soaps that existed in that time were very harsh on the skin and would give people severe chemical burns. Modern soaps would be worth quite a bit.

Hand tools

Tools such as modern hammers, saws, measuring tapes, levels, etc. would definitely be items people would want. Before standard units of measure were created, it was very difficult to have more than one person work on the same project at the same time. There are stories about people that tried to build bridges starting on both sides and meeting in the middle. Once they got close to the middle, they realized that the bridge wouldn't line up because each carpenter used a different sized length for a foot. A tape measure, or any standard measuring device would definitely help out.

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The set of desirable characteristics is straightforward. Said artifacts:

  • can last several thousand years (that narrows it down a bit)
  • must be significantly better than future-medieval era closest-equivalents in whatever purpose they would be used for by the future near-barbarians.

That makes for a rather narrow field, since virtually nothing of modern tech is built to last in any meaningful way for decades, never mind millennia. Moreover, the set of available useful non-food, non-shelter objects in a medieval society was much narrower than today, essentially breaking down into things you wear for protection or to indicate status (clothes, armor, jewelry), things you use to cut or smash other things such as nuts, fields, or people (mostly tools and weapons), things with symbolic information content (maps, books, signposts) and tokens of value (precious stones and metals).

Kevlar breaks down, most metals oxidize and rust, paper would decay, wood would rot or turn to dust, most anything organic would decompose, rubber would become brittle and decay, medievals can easily mine for gold and basic metals, leaving only a handful of materials like Plastic, Aluminium, Titanium, Wolfram and a few other ultra-high-melting point and low oxidation metals as wondrous relics from the past. Titanium and Aluminium would be valued for their lightness compared to Iron, but of limited use, since the technology would not exist to recast them, and any edged weapon or shield would have become blunt and pitted with age. A plastic bead necklace would probably be rarer than a golden one, and a collection of plastic toy Indians & Cowboys on horses (currently $17.50 for a set of 130 on Amazon) would be beyond priceless. Those plastic sealed keychains with some image in them that you can buy in any tourist trap: more precious than diamonds.

After thousands of years of climate change, maps would be outdated because of changing river-beds and coastlines and general difficulty of travel, time-proofed books would be incomprehesible due to language shifts, signposts would point to long-gone cities.

Future technology might be future-proofed, such as durable crystals that trigger holodisplays under the moonlight, or similarly sealed devices that can charge simply from being moved in Earth's magnetic field to display some shiny incomprehensible stuff (perhaps a minecraft video, a tweet, or perhaps something more easily understood such as pornography).

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Ball-point pens: If still functional they allow a steady flow of ink for written manuscripts and were revolutionary when they were invented.

Hypodermic needles: Their utility goes beyond just medical applications but they are impossible to make without precision engineering.

Nuclear devices: Whether bombs, medical devices, sources for industrial testing, or just smoke detectors, anything that would have a metal that actually gave off endless heat energy would be extremely valuable and seem almost magical (even if they knew of the inherent danger). Radioactivity would have been valued in actual medieval times except it wasn't until modern times that we were able to refine and concentrate these substances.

Batteries: Even if you can't make use of their charge, all will be dead by that point anyways, batteries are little capsules filled with sometimes rare and heavy metals, acids, and other chemicals that would have been like a treasure trove to medieval apothecaries and alchemists. And I would imagine a complete lack of understanding at how they worked or why they were created would be great for driving a story.

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This is very similar to the situation Wall.e faces in the 2008 Pixar movie, Wall.e. Of course, in the movie there is a 700 year gap, not millenia.

However, we can still learn a few things.

  • The best place to find artifacts is in the middle of rubbish tips and dumps, where buried by other rubbish, they will survive for longer.

  • Most jewelry will survive intact - an obvious example is a gold ring with diamond on it.

  • Some electronics will be intact, such as disaster-proofed data centres and anything in time capsules. If it is possible to extract the gold from the circuits, these will be one of the most valuable trading items.

    • Nuclear bunkers will almost certainly survive - particularly military ones. Anything inside, such as weapons, books, first-aid kits and perhaps even medicine could be usable. Finding a nuclear bunker would be the equivalent of us finding a pyramid.
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Old mobile phones

You may think I'm joking, owing to how brittle mobile phones nowadays are and the fact that they usually have round corners, but we have tons of it, and I mean it literally. Each year as Apple and Samsung release the next best thing since sliced bread and the last phone, countless obsolete phones are thrown to garbage heaps, we have so much of it. They don't degrade and even a broken phone will still maintain its general mass and shape.

Back when NOKIA was the king, phones were made even larger and larger before they shrink, those phones are thick and can withstand a lot of abuse, they can be laid down as roads and do a good job as one.

For more modern ones, which are pretty thin, they can be used as personal self-defense projectile, it doesn't hurt like an arrow, but can disorient the occasional wild dogs, and is a better choice than throwing kitchenware at thieves

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