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I'm working on a project, a world filled with radiated ruins thousands of years old. People still search these ruins as even now they may hold valuable treasures. Many of these 'Ruin Haunters' come back with what we would recognize as radiation poisoning. How would pre-modern people view this? Many of this world's religions at least recognize the ruins, either as a place of great evil or as remnants of a world ruled by godly men.

I'm sure the radiation would still persist at least a little after 5,000 years. Those who caused it didn't fear radiation.

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    $\begingroup$ How would pre-modern people view this? It is entirely opinion based, since it depends on each and every person's inclinations and background. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Jan 26 at 10:10
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    $\begingroup$ After thousands of years, nuclear weapon fallout would have decayed and washed away -- people live in Hiroshima and Nagasaki today. So your ruins must once have been a power station, fuel processing (or re-processing) factory, or waste storage dump -- but those are all much smaller, and do not take thousands of years to "haunt". Also, many radioactive materials are also chemically poisonous, some are toxic in tiny amounts; successful haunters and their celebrating families might be dead long before their hair starts to fall out. $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Jan 26 at 12:15
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    $\begingroup$ There is a lot of examples of post-apocalyptic worlds which have contaminated locations. Big question is how much your people know about the nature of this danger. I think Shattered Sea series by Joe Abercrombie closely matches your setup. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Jan 26 at 18:07
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    $\begingroup$ FYI: It's not "radiation," it's "radioactivity." Radiation is energy. It disappears instantly when the source is removed. Radioactivity is a property of some materials that cause them to spontaneously emit radiation. The radioactivity is what lingers. $\endgroup$ Jan 26 at 22:29
  • $\begingroup$ You've got a problem here: They are going to see two apparently completely separate issues: The hair loss etc of a slow death (bone marrow kill) vs a much faster death of diarrhea (digestive system kill) that they won't recognize as the same cause. There are possibly also the ones that just collapse (nervous system kill) but AFIAK we have no data on how fast the exposure must be to do this. (All human cases have been due to criticality accidents--basically instant.) $\endgroup$ Jan 27 at 5:21

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I'm sure the radiation would still persist at least a little after 5,000 years

Though you haven't specified the nature of the radioisotopes, lets have a quick look at real-world nuclear waste. Short and medium-lived radioisotopes will be mostly gone by 5000 years... Samarium-151 has a half-life of 85 years, for example, and after 58 half-lives there's going to be precious little of it left.

Long-lived isotopes will be the only things remaining. Technetium-99, for example, has a half-life of over 200000 years and so at ~98% of the original waste will still be present. (note, don't confuse it with Tc-99m which has a much shorter half-life)

On the flip side, long-lived radioisotopes are long lived precisely because they aren't super radioactive. You won't get the classic glowing green gloop or barren wastelands (unless the site was already a barren wasteland independent of the material stores there, I guess). There won't be any of the classic signs of radiation poisoning visible at all, I suspect, but more pernicious chronic illnesses that don't show up for a few months or years, or maybe not until you have children.

If humans live there, they probably have moved in comparatively recently as historically it would have been a hazardous place to live with high rates of birth defects and cancer and so on. Folk memory might have preserved knowledge of the history of the people who tried to live there, even if it didn't remember the origin of the site.

After 5000 years though, it might just be "less healthy" than uncontaminated landscapes, and it might potentially even be less dangerous than other kinds of toxic industrial waste that don't decay over time. Nonetheless, people who live there, or drink the water, or breath the dust, might well be marked with shorter lifespans due to elevated cancer risks and deaths due to leukemia or lung cancers will be quite graphic to observers (for want of a better term). Older animals there might have tumors visible when butchered.

Bad ground, tainted ground, evil ground... all sorts of superstitions. If illness is associated with artifact hunting then the artifacts themselves might be treated with great suspicion... if the "curse" laid upon the ancient tombs of our forebears takes years to strike down those who defile those tombs, who is going to dare keep looted goods in their homes? That's quite a gamble for anyone to take!

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    $\begingroup$ For the isotopes that have a long half-life, couldn't you compensate for this by simply letting there be a lot of it? Streets cobbled with technetium-99 would likely not be healthy to scrub your knees against. Also: There are many isotopes with half-lifes suitable to be dangerous in the prescribed time frame, is there some reason that you don't use them in your example, such that they are incredibly rare or something? (I just had a look at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… ) $\endgroup$
    – EdvinW
    Jan 26 at 14:09
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    $\begingroup$ @EdvinW the problem is the difficulty in creating a huge volume of long-lived radioisotopes. It is an expensive and difficult process to industrialize, and there isn't obviously any point. Modest amounts of long-lived waste is the sort of thing you'd expect from a society that made widespread use of nuclear power. Technetium was simply an example of something that is long enough lived to still pose a risk, but short enough lived to generate a reasonable amount of radiation. $\endgroup$ Jan 26 at 14:16
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    $\begingroup$ This. Take spent fuel, remove the uranium, plutonium and commercially useful isotopes and what's left (what goes into the long term storage in a sensible society) decays to ambient in 10,000 years. Thus it's going to be barely above ambient in 5,000 years. If you want a place to be dangerously hot after 5,000 years it's because someone went to great effort to make it so. $\endgroup$ Jan 27 at 5:06
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    $\begingroup$ @vsz that widely quoted figure is also widely misunderstood. Old people existed in the past, too. High childhood mortality skewed the average downwards. A community with no old people would indeed be unusual. $\endgroup$ Jan 27 at 9:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Preott the problem is that radiation is, to some extent, self limiting... intensely radioactive materials decay quickly, and after 5000 years you're limited with what you might have left. If it was maybe only a couple of hundred years things might be different, but after a few millenia nuclear powered artefacts will have broken the afterglow will be not be dramatic. Maybe you could handwave some supremely robust nuclear powered artifacts that get started up by accident? $\endgroup$ Jan 27 at 17:20
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Evil spirits

Anything causing bad effects had been attributed to evil spirits. The evil spirits, genies, witches live there and they don't want to be disturbed. Anyone who disturbs them bears the consequences.

Forbidden areas by gods

gods don't want anyone to go to the forbidden areas and whoever goes there gets sick.

Cursed areas

Those areas are cursed by magic spells and anyone who goes there gets cursed.

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    $\begingroup$ Also "cooties". $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Jan 26 at 20:05
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    $\begingroup$ I can add: priests could frame the ruin haunters as sinners, having visited the homes of the gods, to steal things. The precious objects found could be radio-active as well. Anyone associated with these stolen goods will be punished by the gods. They could find redemption by leaving the treasures in the temple, to be guarded by the priests, of course. $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Jan 26 at 22:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Goodies if the artifacts themselves bear the "curse" as such, which at least some of them probably would if there is sufficient cause for the objects to frequently be consigned to the priesthood rather than used, then one must also come up with an explanation for how the priesthood mitigates the "curse". Proper storage in lead boxes perhaps? $\endgroup$ Jan 26 at 23:08
  • $\begingroup$ @coppereyecat the priests know more.. they can determine if the "evil spirit" is in the treasures. There's a trick to make it visible, involving silver nitrate and papyrus (they consider it as magic) which is also used as proof against the thieves, before they are punished. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Film_badge_dosimeter $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Jan 30 at 12:23
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There's a real example of this. Australian aboriginies in the Northern Territory call the area with uranium deposits "sickness country". They have demarcated it quite accurately hundreds of years ago (at least), and have creation myths to explain it. The following is from https://www.artistwd.com/joyzine/australia/abr_culture/sickness_country.php , but there are many others of interest on google.

Bula (The Creator) and Bolung (The Rainbow Serpent)

Our land was first created by Bula, who came from saltwater country to the north. With his two wives, the Ngallenjilenji, he hunted across the land and in doing so transformed the landscape through his actions. In a number of places, Bula left his image as paintings in rock shelters. Bula finally went under the ground at a number of locations north of Katherine in an area known to us as “Sickness Country”. It is called this because the area is very dangerous, and should not be disturbed for fear that earthquakes and fire will destroy the world… Bolung the Rainbow Serpent inhabits the deep green pools found in the Second Gorge. We do not fish in the pools where Bolung sits. When fishing close to these pools, we can take only a small portion of the fish caught and throw back the rest in order to appease Bolung. Drinking water must not be taken from these deep pools but rather from the shallow associated waters. Pregnant women and new initiates may not swim in the Katherine River for fear of disturbing Bolung, who must not be spoken to and must be left undisturbed.

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If some of the world's religions recognize the place as one of great evil, that's a pretty obvious explanation for why people who spend time there are afflicted with a mysterious disease.

In response to whether it's realistic to have a place be radioactive after 5000 years, I have a suggestion. On Earth, there is a natural nuclear reactor that was created long before humans even existed. It operated for several hundred thousand years, so your world could easily have one that is still active. This article from Scientific American has a lot of the technical details, while this Reddit thread explains what someone there would have experienced. Essentially, the groundwater would periodically get very hot and emit enough radiation to cause cancer and mutations in plants, animals, and people. It's super cool, right?!

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As the Starfish's answer tells you, after 5,000 you might expect rather limited chronic effects in those who frequent the sites, not acute radiation poisoning of those who go there once. These might surface after a number of years or in new generations.

You'll have to decide how much knowledge survives intact. Without surviving knowledge people will have hard time even making the connection. Compare what we have observed with a primitive people affected by a disease with a long-enough incubation period.

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