John Humphrey has the air of a man fighting a losing battle. Two thousand years after Roman armies destroyed Carthage, Humphrey and a few other archeologists are trying to save its ancient ruins from bulldozer blades.

Once the seat of an empire, modern Carthage is now the most elite suburb of Tunis. Like most Third World capitals, Tunis itself is burgeoning with people, spilling new neighborhoods into adjacent farmlands.

The construction boom has included Carthage, a hilly site on the Mediterranean coast where wealthy Tunisians have come looking for a comfortable life style and a prestigious address. But excavations for their new villas and swimming pools are ripping up buried ruins that date back thousands of years.

Humphrey, an archeology professor at the University of Michigan, has spent his summers here since 1975, working on a UNESCO project to save Carthage's remains. With American funds and volunteers, he has excavated a small undeveloped lot surrounded by luxury homes.

But while Humphrey's team, and a handful of others from Europe and Canada, slowly uncover bits of Carthage's past, new homes and shopping centers are being built over other potential discoveries. Showing a picture of a buried Roman mural sliced cleanly in two by earthmoving equipment, Humphrey says, "The situation here is an archeological tragedy."

Founded in the ninth century B.C., Carthage pushed its empire throughout the western Mediterranean, and rivaled Rome for control of Sicily. After a century of fighting -- in the three Punic wars -- Carthage was defeated and the city razed by the Romans in 146 B.C.

Carthage prospered again as the capital of Rome's African provinces, and as an early Christian center. But, conquered in turn by the Vandals, Byzantines and Muslims, Carthage has left no intact monuments such as Rome's Coliseum or Athens' Parthenon.

Ruins already uncovered include Roman-era baths and villas, early Christian basilicas and the "Tophet" -- a Punic-era sanctuary where Carthage's citizens once burned their children alive in fiery sacrifices to their god, Baal Hammon.

For many modern-day Tunisians, though, Carthage seems more a symbol of socio-economic status than of history -- a symbolism strengthened by the prominence, on a seaside hill, of the splendid official palace of Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba.

But Humphrey and some of his colleagues believe it is the influence of Carthage's elite residents that is frustrating efforts to save the ruins. They say government regulations on construction in Carthage -- intended to protect the buried archeological layers -- go routinely unenforced.

The Tunisian government launched the campaign to save Carthage in 1974, and got UNESCO to coordinate the efforts of the foreign archeologists. But Humphrey criticizes the government for failing to approve a UNESCO-sponsored plan to save still-undeveloped areas for an archeological park. The project was submitted to the government more than a year ago, but an official of the cultural affairs ministry notes unhappily that "the government has other priorities."

Humphrey describes the delay in setting aside the land as "a classic fight over money. The real estate values here are the highest in the country, and people aren't willing to make sacrifices for the sake of the history of this place." Abdelmajid Ennabli, director of a government museum in Carthage, says the greatest problem is the attitude of modern-day Carthaginians: "When most people here look at the land, they see only a construction site. They know what's underneath, but they ignore its value. It's like looking at a car and seeing only a piece of metal."

Humphrey says there is no need to halt all construction in Carthage. Simply by avoiding the use of mechanical earthmoving equipment, and banning in-ground structures such as swimming pools and wine cellars, 95 percent of Carthage's archeological layers could be saved, he says.

Ennabli and Humphrey agree that their primary task is to cultivate local interest in saving Carthage's remains. This past summer, Humphrey led 59 American volunteers in building a small museum on his excavation site, displaying relics found in the ruins of a Roman house and an early Christian church. He thinks it's important that the museum's neighbors -- not only tourists -- visit the site.

"We just want people to understand the value of this," he says. "You just do what you can and hope it will have a ripple effect."