MACKINAW CITY -- It doesn't take long. Type Michigan and artifact.
Up pops dozens of arrowheads, pottery, stone tools or more recent battlefield relics for sale. Some are legal. Some are fakes. Some have been scavenged from public lands — essentially stolen from the taxpayers who pay to preserve park land and forests.
"It totally devalues what the artifact is, because without knowing what it is and what else might be in its surroundings, it is just another pretty thing," Lynn Evans, curator of archaeology for Michigan State Historic Parks.
Every summer since 1959, archaeological digs have been exhuming buildings and artifacts at Fort Michilimackinac, one of the Michigan State Historic Parks.
"All the buildings people see there, we've done the archaeology first," Evans said.
The fort opened a new building this spring, which was part of an excavation completed in 2007.
The archaeological digs help tell historians and anthropologists what time a relic or building came from, how it was used, who used it, what their daily life was like, how they organized their space, what kinds of things they traded and what kind of things they ate. But, once something is removed it loses its verifiable historical context.
Before the Colonial Michilimackinac was protected as a park, people would often scavenge for artifacts and keepsakes on the location.
Evans says people regularly tell the staff about how their grandparents or a distant relative has an object that was discovered around the Straits of Mackinac area surrounding the fort.
"It's nice to have things," Evans says. "Things are cool. People get excited about things. But without knowing where things are from, it doesn't tell us very much."
Michigan state law, Public Act 173 of 1929, prohibits people from removing "all historical and archaeological resources on state owned lands."
That doesn't stop people from prospecting elsewhere.
"We've been fortunate at Fort Michilimackinac, but certainly we know there have been people prospecting in the area," Evans said.
While state and federal property are all protected by laws prohibiting scavengers, private land is the owner's responsibility.
Dean Anderson, state archaeologist for Michigan, says the legal issues are simple.
"Artifacts are the property of the person who owns the land and can't be legally removed without permission," Anderson points out.
But, from an archaeological standpoint, Anderson says the issues surrounding artifacts are more complex.
"If you have an original manuscript in a library or archive, people -- generally speaking -- wouldn't think about going into an archive and tearing a page out of a manuscript," Anderson said. "But often people don't see any harm in digging into an archaeological site."