WHEN the scruffy, sunburned young people were first noticed sifting the dirt along Flint Run near Fron Royal, some of the locals thought they were crazy hippies panning for gold. This stream that meanders through the rolling countryside to meet the South Fork of the Shenandoah River had rarely yielded anything more noteworthy than an occasional beer can, so people had no way of suspecting that the prospectors were on the trail of a yellow mineral rarer than gold, nor that the lode they were mining would become, in its way, as famous as Sutter's Mill.

They "hippies" sought not quick riches but slow, arduous accumulation of knowledge. Archeologists under the direction of Dr. William M. Gardner, chairman of the anthropology department at Catholic University, they were hunting tools made from the native yellow jasper by Shenandoah people 11,000 years ago. They had the luck to be working at the theoretical frontier of their field, because Gardner had had the luck of stumbling upon the oldest and probably the most important archeological site in the eastern United States.

The first time he saw the aban cornfield in the floodplain of the Shenandoah, he knew he was on to something extraordinary. Nearly everything else about the Flint Run archeological complex has been dramatic, took the findings it produced, the circumstances of its discovery, and the long controversy between developers and archeologists over whether it would become "five-acre farmettes" or remain a green, sunny laboratory for meticulous scientific work.

It's only when you watch them work that you begin to understand the seriousness of their purpose. Good archeologists don't dig remains out of the ground, they carve them out, slowly and methodically, as delicately as a lapidary incising a cameo, and with as much loving patience. At its summertime peak, Gardner's work crew approaches fifty people, mainly high school and college students and vacationing volunteers, all closely supervised by experienced advanced graduat students. Most of the excavators pay tuition for the privilege of spending their days hunched over in a trench of wielding a shovel in the broiling sun and their evenings in lectures and laboratories.

An excavation is an exercise in geometry. Exactly plotted squares of ground are opened, with corners true and sides plumb. Test cuts reveal the strats or layers of earth deposited over time and under various conditions; each has a distinctive color and texture. Examining these layers, the excavators establish the levels, or horizons at which they wish to dig. They might remove the several inches deposited by Hurricane Agnes with a shovel, but when they get down to the levels containing remains of prehistoric human cultures, they shift to small trowels, pen knives, even teaspoons.

They sit in their holes hour after hour, breaking off tiny sections of earth, crumbling them to dust, then sweeping the dust with inch-wide paintbrushes into dust pans so that it can be strained carefully for any flakes that might have been missed. (This is what the "hippies" were doing.) Should they find any bit of buried stone, they leave it exactly where it originally lay and cut around it, leaving a little stem or pedestal so that the precise location of each piece can be measured. Every artifact then goes into its own brown paper bag marked with its exact point of origin. Later, at the lab, they must wash the pieces one at a time, taking care not to mix them, and label each one in ink with its own identifying number.

It seems the very definition of tedium. But no, says Kathy Hutt, a Chevy Chase eleventh grader finishing four weeks, "if you're really interested it isn't tedious." The repetition, indeed, is almost payment for the excitement of a find. More of the time the trowel uncovers only more dirt. But sometimes it comes away to reveal the point of an arrow or spear, or other tool: a small, perfect work of art bright with the veined color of the stone, elegant in its curving symmetry, exquisite in its craftsmanship. The pride glows in the finder's face as he hands the treasure over, pride in finding it and pride also in the skill that went into its making. Maybe 10,000 years ago some other person sat on this very same ground, looking out over this very same river bank, and, striking one stone against another, fashioned this unnaturally beautiful form. He might have used it to catch the food that kept him alive, and when it was used up, he probably discarded it. And from that day until a student's trowel reveals it, no other living person has seen it. One imagines that those master artisans of the ice age would appreciate the skill and reverence of the scholarly artisans delving into their ancient past.

But finding the artifact is, in a sense, only a subsidary pleasure. The point of the exercise, according to Jay Custer, a graduate student who supervises one of the sites, is to record as exactly as possible the arrangement of the finds, "if we wanted to, we could put this site together exactly as we found it," he says. Realizing this theoretical possibility in the computer rather than in the field allows for detailed analysis of the spatial relationships of artifacts, and then an even more detailed analysis of what it all means.

The Flint Run excavators are so careful that they have revealed details as precise as the outlines of the legs of the toolmakers. Chipping away, the artisans scattered flakes on themselves, their clothing, and the floor. Standing up, they left the area under their legs clean; and so it remained for 10,000 years.

Gardner's teams have excavated a number of sites in the Flint Run area covering the story of human occupation in the Shenandoah from the earliest settlers during the ice age 11,000 years ago, through the development of agriculture by the Indians, up to the destruction of indigenous cultures by white expansion, and on into the recorded history of Virginia. But Flint Run's main scientific contributions are in the earliest periods. Two sites, Thunderbird and Fifty, have yielded some of the most important archeological materials ever found in the eastern United States.

They were discovered almost by accident. In 1970 one of Gardner's students, Stephen Gluckman, addressed a meeting of the amateur Northern Shenandoah Chapter of the Archeological Society of Virginia. Gluckman (now state archeologist of South Carolina) immediately noticed that members' collections were surprisingly rich in rare Paleo-Indian artifacts. These stone tools from about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, are the oldest found in North America. Gardner himself then traveled to Front Royal to see the collections, and more importantly the place where many of the pieces had been found. Convinced that the area deserved a closer look, he arranged for a grant to support preliminary work in the summer of 1971 at the Thunderbird Ranch, then owned by Thunderbird Ranch, Inc. Adjacent properties also seemed rich in possibilities. Gardner called the whole area of more than 1700 acres Flint Run, after a stream that entered the river nearby.

Gardner's team originally assumed that the Thunderbird remains, like those at most Paleo-Indian sites, lay mainly on the surface. Years of plowing and erosion, after all, had probably disturbed the layers of the original deposits - what archeologists call the stratigraphy. But a pattern of "hot spots," or places especially dense with artifacts quickly emerged. These Gardner assumed corresponded to places of significant cultural activity. Digging into one of the "hot spots" to test the soil, University of Maryland scientist John Foss raised a surprising sample: he found what were apparently man-made jasper flakes down to a depth of three feet.

This was no mere collection of artifats stirred aroud by the plow. Excavation in the "hot sport" brought more surprises: a completely undisturbed array of Paleo-Indian strata, and most amazing, the unmistakable soil discrlerations that archeologists call postholds, the marks left by posts that have long ago rotted into the ground. So the ancient inhabitants a long tradition of tool-using on this site, but had even built some sort of structure here. Because the site lay in the floodplain immediately beside the river, years of flooding had deposized layers of silt that protected the strata from the plow.

To understand why, in summer 1971, Gardner felt a bit like the Englishman who had first stumbled upon king Turf's tomb requires a little understanding of the state of North American prehistoric archeology at that time. To put it simply, there were mother known Paleo-Indian sites with strata intact in the eastern United States. Theory suggested that such sizes shouldn't exist; that people of the Paleo-Indian period would have built even semipermanent structures was out of the question. They were thought to have been nomadic hunters with neither the desire nor, presumbly, the ability to erect more than temporary shelters. But here was the evidence, and if the dating estimates could be trusted, these were the oldest known traces of structures in North America.

For people who thought that the recent bicentennial was a big deal, the time scale at Flint Run takes a bit of getting used to. At the time of the Revolution much of North America was under George III; at the time of the earliest Flint Run settlements, much of North America was under a glacier. Mastodons and mammoths rather than minutemen prowled the countryside. The climate resembled that of the Yukon territory today. The people of the Shenandoah Valley earned their living by hunting the large animals of the valley's extensive grasslands with stone weapons. They followed their game, but also returned periodically to established camps. The cycle obviously provided them adequate subsistence because they repeated it for many years - for half again as many, in fact, as separate the bicentennial year from the birth of Christ.

And for people used to thinking of the past as written history, the study of prehistory takes a bit of getting used to, too. Prehistoric archeologists must learn entirely from the physical remains of human settlement, often from the castoffs and garlbage that people are likely to leave lying around. What we know of the Flint Run people comes almost entirely from bits of stone and discalorations of the earth, signs that show what tools people made and how they made them, as well as where they lit their fires and built their shelters. Prehistoric archeologists also have the evidence of geology and florm and fauna to help. They know, for example, that the earliest settlements at Flint Run, the lowest strata, occurred during the late Pleistocene, an ice-age period when glaciers still dominated the weather. But as the glaciers retreated, animals and plants of warmer - and more modern - climes spread in to take their place. Grasslands gave way to conifer, then deciduous forests. Ice-age mastodons and moose, camels and bisons, were replaced by smaller, solitary animals [WORD ILLEGIBLE] on the more bountiful and varied plant life. For over 4000 years, the time of the settlements at the Thunderbird site, the weather followed a general warming trend. The seasons became more pronounced. By the time the Thunderbird people abandoned their base of so many generations, their environment had changed from markedly "ice-age" to temperate.

Gardner and his students have pieced together a good idea of how the earliest human settlers of the Shenandoah lived, or at least how they made their living from the five kinds of sites that have been found at Flint Run.

The key to the ice-age complex was a jasper quarry near the river, which supplied the raw material for tools and weapons. Between the quarry and the river lies a small settlement area that Gardner calls a quarry reduction station, apparently a camp where people working at the quarry settled temporarily and formed their newly cut stone into easily transportable roughts.

Thunderbird site, the piece de resistance of the Flint Run complex, served for millenia as a major base camp. The vast litter of jasper fragments from newly made tools and the presence of postmolds and remains of fireplaces, Gardner believes, clearly indicate that over a period of many years people would stay at Thunderbird for appreciable stretches of time in order to transform the quarried roughs into finished weapons and tools.

Not far from Thunderbird lies Fifty (the name comes from the site's technical designation, 44WR50) a smaller but equally important site whose stratigraphy so closely matches Thunderbird's that they are undeniably associated. Fifty is a hunting and processing camp that people visited periodically because it lay close to a bog that attracted game. Hunters apparently brought their new kills here for butchering before transporting them to the main camp at Thunderbird. The large number of cutting and scraping tools found here tells the story.

Finally, the surrounding uplands are dotted with smaller, less important, and only sporadically visited hunting camps, where people occasionallt caught a few animals. The stone remains indicate that weapons were sharpened and repaired, but not fabricated here.

The Paleo-Indians and Early Archaic people of Flint Run, whom Gardner's work establishes to be representatives of a single cultural tradition, were hunters of large game animals. They were at least partially nomadic, ranging in groups big enough to provide the several hunters needed to catch a large animal as well as the numerous mouths it could feed. Every so often, however, loss and breakage would exhaust their supply of jasper tools and weapons and they would return to Flint Run to replenish it.

For some reason, they retained their devotion to jasper for millenia. On each visit, apparently, they would settle in at Thunderbird. Some group members would go to the quarry for raw materials, and some would probably visit Fifty to keep the group supplied with meat. The quarry workers might live at the reduction station while they worked, but would ultimately return to Thunderbird because of its superior creature comforts.

No one knows for how long or how frequently people stayed at Thunderbird, nor how many different segments of the same group might have used it. As yet we know nothing about their social organization, although Gardner hopes to tackled demography later. But it seems certain that the visit offered more than an opportunity to resupply. Like many modern nomadic peoples, the Flint Run folk might have used these campign times for religious festivals, marriages, or political maneuvers.

Because of its economic, if not geographic, centrality, it must have been socially central too. Gardner believes that the social arrangements of Flint Run were not unique: where similar ecological conditions exist, similar sites seem to appear in association. It could be that people followed this pattern from Pennsylvania to Alabama.

But as the temperature and the deciduous forests gradually advanced, the conditions that supported this way of life receded. The large herd animals became less numerous and the small, solitary ones such as deer, more so. Vegetable resouces became more plentiful too. Perhaps the large groups of the past became less necessary for the hunt, or perhaps the more frequent but smaller kills made them more difficult to maintain. At about this time, and for reasons not understood, the essentially exclusive dependence on jasper ended. Maybe the richer resources provided people more leeway to experiment. Probably people depended more no plant food and less on hunting. For whatever reason, about 8000 years ago the hunters stopped coming regularly to quarry at Flint Run, and a long cultural epoch ended.

Visitors to the Shenandoah can tudy the material remains of many epochs at the cheerful and informative Thunderbird Museum, located seven miles south of Front Royal on Route 340 and the keystone of the organization Gardner had developed to support the decades of work he thinks the archeological riches of the area deserve. His non-profit Thunderbird Research Corporation, besides running the museum, handles both the summer field school, which uses the dormitories and labs of nearby Randolph Macon Military Academy, and a consulting service, which prepares federally-required archeological impact statements for various clients. Gardner hopes eventually to achieve a stable financial base to support his excavations in spite of the shortage of reliable sources of grant money. He envisions a "permanent regional research center" rather than the typically temporary, ad hoc university dig.

Thus far, however, Gardner's instinct for uncovering artifacts has surpassed his instinct for finding funds. Lack of money has consistently proved a drag on the project and for a perilous time threatened to sink it altogether.. He hopes that the corporation's newly acquired tax-free status will attract contributions, both large and small, so that the museum can remain open and the work continue undistracted by the alarms and incursions of the last year.

The very beauty of this bend in the river almost did the whole thing in. It's easy to see from the museum's picture window why land-hungry city folk would want their own five acres on this green hillside looking over velvety fields and woods to the shining arabesque of the river and Massanutten Mountain looming beyond. And it's easy to imagine how eagerly they put down their deposits on the 200-foot-wide lots stretching down through the uplands and across the floodplain to the river. And it's no harder to feel Gardner's panic as he watched his literally priceless and irreplacable sites being carved up on a land developer's plat.

Early in the excavations, the Thunderbird Ranch, containing Thunderbird and Fifty site, along with the adjacent properties, passed into the hands of John T. Flynn, who planned to develop it all into a subdivision for recreational and residential use. Flynn quickly became an enthusiastic supporter of the digs. He not only reserved the approximately 100 acres most important to the archeologists but made the digs the center of his ambitious development plans and even sponsored the museum in a house he owned across the river.

But like many marriages of convenience, that of Flynn and Gardner dissolved when their interests began to diverge. Flynn's plans did not proceed as they should have, and as Flynn's financial structure began to totter, Gardner began to fear for the safety of his sites. He thought of attempting to raise money to buy the riverfront property before the crash came, but Flynn resisted, apparently fearing that any moves on Gardner's part could signal his creditors to move in. And after all the generosity his benefactor had shown, Gardner did not believe he could go behind his back. By late 1975, however, he did file with the state of Virginia for nomination of Flint Run to the state and national Register of Historic Places. That move opened the possibility of federal matching grants to help in acquisition.

In the fall of 1976 Gardner's worst fears were realized. Flynn's empire crashed down around him and the land was soon sold at auction. Three different owners eventually divided what had been Flynn's property. The crucial piece, containing. Thunderbird and Fifty, came into the hands of the Haynes Anderson Trustees, real estate developers in Front Royal.

Charles Anderson says he and his associates did not know they were buying land of major scientific importance. "When I heard about it, I thought, so what if there's a lot of bones down there?" But one thing they did know was that they had also acquired a mortgage giving them two years to resell the property or risk forfeiting more than $600,000.

Gardner desperately began trying to raise money to buy at least the most important sites. He viewed the situation as dire. "House building, road construction, putting in septic tanks, wells, drain fields, patios, etc., will lead to nearly complete disturbance of the landscape and large scale disturbance of the archeological sites," he wrote in October 1976.

The best chance of salvation appeared to lie in a $250,000 combination of federal matching grants and state or private contributions to cover the cost of about 100 acres. This meant activating the landmark application, which needed state approval before it could proceed to the U.S. Park Service and which had already spent about a year in process at the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission.

The cause for the delay remains a matter of some dispute. Gardner attributes many of his problems to prejudice on the part of the state archeology authorities in favor of the Tidewater region and more recent historic periods. "They'll protect everything in the world if Robert E. Lee or George Washington slept them," he says.

"Nonsense," says William Kelso of the Virginia Research Center for Archeology. Any problems Gardner faced, he argues, arose from a combination of shorthandedness at the commission and Gardner's own bureau cratic inexperience.

In any case, Virginia eventually did nominate Flint Run to the National Register and agreed to supply funds to acquire at least a portion of the old Thunderbird Ranch. The Department of the Interior indicated that if looked favorably on a matching grant for the project. But the money would not become available until October 1977.

In the meantime, the clock was ticking for Haynes-Anderson, who federal the state and federal governments could not act quickly enough. "A short time to a government agency is eighteen months," Anderson says. They decided they couldn't risk the wait, so in the fall of 1976 large ads went into the newspaper in Warren County and Washington.

Articles began to appear in the paper, too, telling in Anderson's words, about "those cutthroat developers coming in and raping the land and letting all those archeological goodies go down the drain." Whether bad PR had an effect on Haynes-Anderson isn't clear, but in early December they agreed to declare a moratorium can sales of the twenty waterfront sites containing the most precious remains. The very riverside location that had protected Thunderbird and Fifty for so many years made them, of course, the most desirable building lots in the development. All through the winter Gardner attempted without success to interest environmentalists in lending him the money until funds came through from the government, but again time ran out. Hayness-Anderson felt they had to put the lots for sale last April. They had kept a waiting list during the moratorium, and the twenty lots containing Thunderbird and Fifty went in a matter of weeks.

But all was not lost. The deeds contained a binding covenant negotiated by Gardner and Haynes-Anderson "for the purpose of increasing the value and desirability of said property," which forbids the new owners to "excavate, plow, or any way unearth the ground" in the protected area. First established for an ten-year period, the agreement automatically continues for successive decades ulless rejected by a vote of two-thirds of the affected lot owners. Holders of other lots are bound for two years to notify the archeologists in advance of any plans to disturb the ground.

Anderson believe with satisfaction that the archeologists have "been able to get essentially what they wanted without having to raise the money. If they get along with the lot owners, they have a perpetual easement" on Thunderbird and Fifty.

Gardner, although grateful that things worked out no worse, is not so sure. He has had to shift his digging in the outlying areas to a salvage operation from the meticulous work the prefers. In addition, the fate of the museum is unclear. And then there's the principle of the thing. Why, he wonders, should the fate of one of the country's most important archeological resources have been left to the mercies of land developers and lot owners, who, after all, cannot be expected to suffer financial ruin for the sake of science? Why must its fate have rested on luck and his own none-to-successful attempts to master the politics and finance of preservation? Why didn't the preservation establishment act agressively instead of depending on him? Why does the law put the burden of proof on those who would save irreplacable resources, rather than on those who would disturb them?

So far, however, the arrangement has worked well. Nearly all landowners have cheerfully cooperated and work has proceeded through another productive summer. The agreement appears to have assured that man's newest use of the Shenandoah valley will not destroy our understanding of the oldest. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption; Pictures 1 through 4, 1. Jasper knife found at Thunderbird. 2. Massanutten Mountain and the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, as seen from the Thunderbird Museum. 3. Afluted "Clovis" point excavated at Fifty. 4. Steve Gbuckman, Janet Pusey and Inor Gross, digging at Thunderbird. By Joan Walker; Picture 5 through 8, 5. Project director William M. Gaviner taking a sample for carbon-14 analysis. 6. Another view of Thunderbird, with the Blue Ridge Mountain in the distance. 7. 11,000 years ago someone chipped out stone tools here. 8. Joan Walker and Rose Francie (under the frame) [WORD ILLEGIBLE] an excuvated floor., By Bob Porter; Picture 9 through 12, 9. Students digging at Thunderbird. 10. Russ Handsman and William Gardner sift the soil, looking for artifacts. 11. Digging out a buried bog ten feet below today's ground level. 12. Kathy Quinn maps an excavated floor.