IN 1975, Italian archaeologists discovered the long lost city-state of Ebla in ancient Syria. When they unearthed the royal palace, the archaeologists found clay tablets lying on the floor -- the royal archives. The tablets had fallen there when a fire destroyed the wooden shelves where they'd been stored. Ironically, that same fire baked and preserved the tablets. In cuneiform text, like bird footprints in sand, the archives revealed a sophisticated civilization dating to the time of the Great Sphinx at Giza in Egypt: 2500 B.C.

Archaeological digs in Syria go back a mere 50 years -- to when a nomad, looking for stones to build a burial marker, uncovered a headless statue. That led to the discovery of Mari -- another city-state that rivaled Ebla. "Ebla to Damascus: Art and Archaeology of Ancient Syria," at the Natural History Museum, draws on the artifacts from these and other relatively recent excavations.

Circulated by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, "Ebla to Damascus" has gone from Baltimore to Richmond (and other American cities). If you have so far missed it, this is the last chance to see it before the 275 items leave the country to return to Syrian museums. It is well worth a long visit. Ancient Syria had no King Tut with a tomb filled with gold. But while you won't be dazzled, you'll be moved. It's almost as if a time capsule from another planet suddenly appeared, revealing a race of robe-draped, wide-eyed peoples, looking incredibly wise.

"Ebla to Damascus" puts things into perspective. Cities built on the ruins of cities can do that. And lost civilizations unearth primitive responses. Some of the objects go back 10,000 years, when nomads in this part of the Fertile Crescent had learned they could stay in one place and still eke out a living. And here, in ancient Ugaritic script, we find the distant forerunner of our own alphabet. It can be seen in a royal land sale document, an incantation against snakebite and a royal divorce decree, dated 1250 B.C.: Ammistamru, king of Ugarit married the daughter of Benteshina, king of Amurru. However, she had nothing but mischief in mind for Ammistamru . . .

Amulets and icons show religious beliefs and the influences of other cultures. A fertility goddess roughly formed from limestone gave way -- in time, a few thousand years -- to a libation vessel in pottery, shaped like a hedgehog (it could defend itself against snakes and so ward off evil spirits); and then to Anzu, lion-headed eagle in lapis lazuli and gold, symbol of a Sumerian storm god; and the fierce rain god Baal, in human form in bronze and gold, cited as a false god in the Old Testament.

Later come the carved stone gods deriving from Greek and Roman deities (one exhibit room is filled with poor cousins to the Elgin Marbles). And then Syrian Christianity, represented here by Byzantine lamps and mementos relating to St. Simeon the Elder. For 40 years, St. Simeon lived atop a 50-foot column. He was the first of the "stylites" -- holy men, column dwellers, who prayed with arms outstretched in the manner of living crucifixes. Pilgrims climbed a ladder to see St. Simeon and dropped small terracotta tokens at his shrine. The exhibit's journey ends in medieval times in Damascus, when it was the heart of Islam. Here is a masterfully carved wooden screen with bone inlay which extols Allah.

The exhibit fizzles out a bit at the end. Covering so many centuries is an ambitious undertaking. But this is just an outline of a story still unfolding -- as excavations of ancient Syria continue.

EBLA TO DAMASCUS: ART & ARCHAEOLOGY OF ANCIENT SYRIA -- Through January 3, 1988 at the Natural History Museum.