HOLLYWOOD'S latest hero dodges boulders, finds treasure and stares down snakes when he's not routing Nazis, and still has time in Cairo for a friendly drink with a foe.

He saunters up to the cunning Frenchman, Beloc, in a noisy bar. Beloc purrs amiably, "You and I are very much alike. Archeology is our religion."

In the air-conditioned theater, oceans away from the goings-on in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," everyone holds his breath as the pure-hearted protagonist, Indiana Jones, meets ever-deepening dangers -- everyone, that is, except a guy named Mac McDaniel.

What really moves McDaniel isn't Jones; it's the cast of thousands shown shoveling the sands of time.

"That," he whispers at the sight of a mass dig, where white-burnoosed Egyptians burrow through the dirt, "is the way to do an excavation." He chuckles and nudges his neighbor. "Just look at all those avocational archeologists."

The day before, he'd led a pack of just such folk into a Loudoun County bean field, a stone's throw from Washington. There were no boulders, no Nazis, no vipers, of course -- in any event, not that day. There was, as it happened, treasure.

They trekked to the field after sunrise, taking the hard way -- through thickets and over downed trees -- partly because, as McDaniel had it, "There's a property owner nearby who's been getting rather raucous with his shotgun."

McDaniel had eyed this field anxiously for quite a while, only lately getting the owners' leave to check it. On a rise by the Potomac, sheltered by woods, it's perfectly placed to have hosted primitive people, who might have used the spot for tool-making, skinning or cooking. In the lingo of archeology, it fits "the predictive model."

An elfin presence with a bright red beard, his arms flecked brown by the sun, McDaniel squatted by his knapsack and dug out a bunch of trowels. Lined up to receive them were some of his regulars -- Dick Brock, a 40-ish National Security Agency analyst; Nancy Braden and Jane Kosowsky, who both work for a communications conglomerate -- plus a few newcomers. One was Mike Regan part-owner of the Brook Farm Inn of Magic, a dinner theater in Chevy Chase where McDaniel holds court. Regan brought the beer.

"What I wanna know," he said, "is did these people who lived long ago have a sense of humor? I mean, was there mirth in their souls?"

This was to be a survey job -- no digging today, just a surface scan for hand-worked stone and other signs of human habitation. Concentrations of artifacts here and there would confirm the presence of sites. So McDaniel sent his charges to various spots in the soybean rows -- "Don't trample 'em," he pleaded -- and started them in a sweep across the newly plowed field.

They trudged in the gathering heat, eyes glued to the ground, and braved deerflies that could chomp through shirts. They shouted their observations as they went. "Fire-cracked rock!" yelled Steve Kimbel, a public-relations man for the Animal Health Institute as well as president of the Northern Virginia Archeological Society, a group of amateurs and professionals. "Rhyolite flake!" cried Jane Kosowsky, spotting evidence of ancient tool-making. "Jasper!" Nancy Braden called out at the sight of a bright yellow stone. As for McDaniel, he promptly discovered a quartzite endscaper, thousands of years old, and stowed it in the pocket of his cutoffs. "Ooo-weee," he'd murmur at every new find.

By the end of the day, they'd found four sites spanning 7,000 years of culture, as well as knives, spearpoints and scrapers enough to fill McDaniel's kitchen counter. ("If this looks like an archeology lab with a bed in it," he says of his bachelor's pad in Chevy Chase, "that's because it is.") But they also had made a disturbing discovery: footprints, size 14.

"Very definitely, I think we have something significant on these sites," McDaniel exulted that Sunday night as he cleaned the fragments and tools, wrought from rocks as various as translucent black chert and transparent quartz. "Does it follow the predictive model? The answer's a screaming 'yes.' Obviously, though, somebody's come in before us and scoured the place for artifacts. We tracked him all over the edges of the field.I just hope he doesn't come back."

Next week, McDaniel and crew returned to find five more sites, making a total of nine, and hundreds more artifacts. The week after that, on their third visit, they raised the number of sites to 16. But "Bigfoot," as they'd dubbed the unknown visitor, had also returned to forage.

It was Bigfoot and McDaniel, toe to toe athwart progress: Countryside, a housing development being built by a life-insurance company, will soon consume and destroy the sites -- just as construction projects elsewhere threaten other oldtime haunts.

McDaniel has grappled before with such as Bigfoot, a "pot-hunter" in the parlance of archeologists. Charles Merry, a retired Sears, Roebuck salesman from Rockville, is a collector with whom McDaniel is friendly. "'Pot-hunter'?" laughs Merry, 67, who keeps in his basement thousands of artifacts, many from Montgomery County. "I don't think I've ever heard that word. But they can call me what they want."

"Don't worry," grins McDaniel, who can tell Merry's tracks on sight. "You can bet that Charlie knows what it means."

Once a few years back, McDaniel was roping off a site into a grid pattern -- standard procedure for recording the locations of discrete artifacts -- when a scavenger ventured near.

"This old -- I'll call him a gentleman -- followed me into the field. He was wearing a carpenter's apron with huge pouches in front. He insisted he was gonna walk in front of me, and he seemed to be dropping things into the pouches as he went. 'Can't you do this someplace else?' I said. He didn't answer, just kept on walking.'Look,' I told him. 'Either get your butt off this site right now or I'll get it off for you.'" The gentlemen went quietly.

Rolin E. "Mac" McDaniel isn't Indy Jones. At 50, he doesn't wield a whip or pack a pistol. But he has a certain flair, which makes some people want to follow him through stinging nettles and back -- and others take him seriously when he says goodbye or else .

"Mac is just one of those guys who attract people. He's archeology right down to his shoetops," says Steve Kimbel. "He's a charismatic figure, I guess," Dick Brock says. "Oh, he's a character," agrees Tyler Bastian, the state archeologist of Maryland.

Last Saturday, on his third trip to the bean field, he got the chance to gild his legend. He and his party were splashing through foot-deep water after a heavy rain. They observed two harmless snakes, a black and a ribbon garter, slithering downstream. Then they saw another.

"Just as we were making our way out of a huge puddle, I came up to this black-looking snake. I sort of rolled it over with my sneaker. Then I saw -- too late -- this big walnut-shaped head, and this bell-shaped markings, bright orange, running along the sides. I realized I had better move my foot right away , and was in the process of doing so when it whipped back and got me. I thought rather smugly that he'd just hit my sneaker.But it turned out I'd been bitten by a damn copperhead."

Luckily it was a love bite -- as McDaniel determined at home. (He still went tramping through the field.) He peered dispassionately through the 20-power glass with which he examines artifacts: the tiny fangs had penetrated just enough to swell his right ankle to the size of a baseball, but not enough to acquaint him with the tortures of the damned.

As for the reptile, McDaniel said, "I suspect the poor soul went off in the woods and died. He was probably gagging and spitting freckles for the next eleven hours." Echoing Indy Jones, he added, "I hate snakes."

McDaniel isn't an archeologist by trade; he took it up as a hobby 10 years ago, after one of his daughters discovered a spearpoint in the family's back yard in Rockville, and he earned a master's in his spare time at American University. Before that, he drove sports cars competitively, canoed the Potomac whitewater and did backflips from a three-meter board -- something he learned in college. He earns his keep, sedately, at a desk in downtown Washington, where he devises new phone systems for American Telephone & Telegraph.

"It's like a big detective story," McDaniel says of his passion. "The only problem is, it never comes to an end."

These days, as astronomers compute the precise amount of matter in the universe, and cosmologists fashion theories about creation's first three minutes, it's surprising that so much mystery attends the peopling of North America. What startles more -- considering the enterprise of pot-hunters -- is how thickly the local area teems with evidence and clues.

The best guess is that people first arrived, marching from Asia over the Aleutian Islands, on the tail end of the Ice Age, about 14,000 years ago, perhaps longer. About 12,000 years ago, they reached the Mid-Atlantic. As the climate continued to warm, they changed from hunters to farmers, from nomads to villagers. Their weapons changed as well -- from the crude Clovis point, the oldest type known, to the efficient Woodlands arrowhead, which greeted many a mariner who reached the New World.

Who were these ancients? How did they come here. Indeed, did they have a sense of humor?

Mac McDaniel, for answers, is happiest combing the "Piedmont Potomac" -- what archeologists call the land along the river -- and stays away from more exotic climes.

"I've got my hands full just around here," he says. "Believe me, there are enough puzzles to last a lifetime." On the question of humor, though, McDaniel's fairly certain: "All you have to see is one of their animal effigies carved in a rock -- like a bug beating on a bird, instead of the other way around. They had all kinds of little jokes."

In the bar at Brook Farm, over the spirited bleatings of a chorus of 4-Hers, McDaniel launched into a discourse on ancient tongues. Starting with the languages of American Indians, he shouted, linguists traced them back to their probable roots. The result was a language of incredible richness, but one that had no nouns: "There was no word for 'tree.' Instead, it was something like 'the thing that grows green leaves in the spring and summer.'"

Archeology has never been an exact science -- being equal parts sociology, linguistics, history and hunches -- but it might be the most accessible to laymen. Amateurs, in fact, are what make the thing go; without them, the professionals would be lost.

"We depend quite a bit on amateurs, especially for information about the location of sites," says archeologist Bruce Smith of the Smithsonian Institution. Others, like Catholic University professor William Gardner, who directs excavations on the 12,000-year-old "Thunderbird" site at Front Royal, among the oldest in North America, uses mostly volunteers to do the digging.

"I've given up trying to look for common traits," Gardner says. "We have people who never went to high school, doctors and lawyers, retired military, high-school teachers, mechanics, house-painters. I guess there's a love of history and a tremendous love of the outdoors. Beyond that," he laughs, "we all have a peasant mentality."

Gardner and McDaniel, as well as Mike Johnson, the Fairfax County archeologist, started out as amateurs. Their stories are much the same: a happenstance discovery that ignited the imagination, then urged them on to more.

Sometimes, though, the common thread has a twist: Dick Johnson, a house-painter from Anne Arundel County, was entranced by archeology as a kid in Illinios. When World War II intervened, he found himself flying B-17s over Berlin. During a massive bombing raid late in 1944 -- a retaliatory response to the V-1 rockets -- he and a thousand other pilots vaporized much of historic value. "That was the only time we bombed rather indiscriminately," recalls Johnson, now back in the archeological fold. "But I wasn't the bombardier. I just drove the truck." These days he uses his three-seat Piper Cub in aerial searches for sites, and he has even penned a poem: I walk the fields, I search the streams, To seek the ancients' hopes and dreams. An odd-shaped stone, a telltale clue, Bits of charcoal I pursue . . . In another age, the 19th century, a similar impulse ruled Heinrich Schliemann, the German millionaire who uncovered the ruins of Troy. Though in Schliemann's case, the method was madness: hacking through walls and smashing precious vases on his way toward glittering gold.

The emphasis now is heavy on preservation. The other day, Mike Johnson of Fairfax County and a group of volunteers gathered at two square-meter pits on the Dead Run site, deep in the wilds of Langley. Using trowels and brushes, they spent hours rifling the pits for chips the size of a dime, which they placed in plastic bags. With nails, they painstakingly marked the location of anything bigger.

Every so often, Johnson ran a pile of dirt through a strainer, just to make certain that nothing would be missed. The point, Johnson explained, was to plot a graph in three dimensions of the artifacts discovered -- the better to guess who lived there, and when.

"This can get damned frustrating after a while," mused Bob Wadsworth, a 36-year-old accountant, as he crouched and stirred the dirt. "When you have to trowel through all these nails, it'll drive you crazy."

Archeology can be fun. It can be fairly tedious, too.

"Oh, yes," says MacDaniel. "I can tell you all about those days when you spend six hours in the field and come back with absolutely nothing. All that work and all you have to show for it is a sink full of worthless rocks."