We know the antique art of Ur better than we do that of our Midwest. Most of us have never seen the ancient art of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Tennessee, Kentucky. Today we get our chance.

"Ancient Art of the American Woodland Indians" goes on view this morning at the National Gallery of Art. It is devoted to objects mostly made before Columbus in the great forests that once blanketed the eastern third of the United States.

The exhibit -- on display in the gallery's East Building -- is a show of many echos. It is not what one expected. Our image of the Indian has been molded by the movies, by museum dioramas and by all those grade school text books that told us what they ate. But the present exhibition includes no feathered headbands, moccasins or buckskins, no Natty Bumppo souvenirs, but only things much older -- spear points made of copper, figurines inset with pearls, pierced and polished stones. And its theme is art.

It begins 5,000 years ago. Egypt's pyramids were new then. The Indians' bow and arrow had not yet been perfected. From the Great Lakes to the Gulf, the hunters of the woodlands still relied on the spear.

On the spear -- and the spear-thrower known as the atlatl. The atlatl is a kind of whippy rod with weights tied towards one end. The hunter holds the other end with the hand which grasps his spear. The atlatl extends backwards from his fist, runs back along the shaft, hooks into the spear butt and serves as an extension of the hunter's arm. Flicked in just the right way, it gives the spear the sort of force that David's leather sling imparted to the stone.

The oldest artifacts look like modern art. Look, for instance, at the bannerstones with which the show begins.

They come in different shapes. Some are shaped like boomerangs, some like discs or bowties. All are smooth, and smoothly curved, and without figuration. They are made of chalcedony, or of polished granite, or of stones of banded slate so formed that the object's shape must have been determined by the banded patterns of the stone's striations. One longs to hold these bannerstones to feel their heft, their weight, and the way they'd settle in the hand.

When bannerstones were first dug up in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky, their finders could not figure our what use these stones had served. But now we know that they were tied to the atlatl, to give that tool the sort of swinging weight the ax head gives the ax. The smaller birdstones shown nearby were made for the same purpose. They look a bit like birds, it's true, but not like birds only. They display those complex curves -- that perfection drawn from function -- that one observes in boats, in hull shapes and in cleats. They were tied to the atlatl to fine tune its balance, as one might attach a little lead weight to the wheel of a car.

Although they were buried millennia ago, these bannerstones and birdstones look as if they might have come out of the studio of some subtle modern master -- say Isamu Noguchi.

The link between a bannerstone and a sculpture by Noguchi, or that between a birdstone and the brass cleat of a yacht, exists only in the viewer's mind. But that eerie sense of eons crossed, of unexpected mental rhymes, of improbable affinities, recurs throughout the show.

One of its great surprises is the striking number of non-Indian cultures its objects call to mind.

Among the first things one sees are a pair of gorgets, plaques of pierced and polished quartz worn as body decorations. The way they're sized to fit the hand, the placements of their small drilled holes, the way their "straight" sides subtly curve -- it all seems half-familiar. At last the penny drops. These gorgets from the Hemplull site, Brown County, Ill., eerily resemble the late neolithic harvesting knives that have been discovered throughout China.

Other Chinese memories are conjured by this show. A "Feline-Effigy Pipe" found on the Anderson Plantation near the Crooked Bayou in Chicot County, Ark., has a pugnosed face with fangs as well as mighty whiskers. It looks a little like a cat. But, as Thomas Lawton, director of the Freer Gallery of Art, acknowledges, it looks more like the snarling guardian images made througout Buddhist China in the 4th century A.D.

And it is not only China these old objects evoke. The curvilinear designs on the Wilmington Tablet from Clinton County, Ohio, suggest Celtic interlacings. That socketed copper spear point (discovered on a ridge overlooking Lake Superior in Houghton County, Mich.) looks as if it might have been among the weapons Ulysses used at Troy. One small, kneeling wooden figure (from the Calusa Culture, Key Marco, Fla.) has the body of a woman and the head of a cat -- and a spirit half-Egyptian. Nearby is a ceramic seed jar (from Scott County, Ark.) that looks as if it might have been come from modern Tokyo. The simplicity of its shape, and the way its surface is embellished with abstract tonal decorations, seems distinctly Japanese.

There are pots with spiral decorations here that look surprisingly like those that have been found in Crete.

Among the most impressive objects in the Woodlands exhibition is a larger-than-life hand cut from a sheet of mica. It is nearly a foot high. It comes from Ross County, Ohio. Its thumb is nearly lifelike, but its fingers are a bit too long, and none of them have joints. How many ancient images this object calls to mind -- the hand marks sprayed by Ice Age artists on the dripping walls of European caves, the blessings of the Christ and those of the Buddha, the chamsa charm worn in Israel today and throughout the Middle East.

What is one to make of all these strange affinities, these linkages, resemblances, cross-cultural reminders?

The answer has to be: not much.

One can speculate at will about Scandinavian voyagers who got to Massachusetts. One can also babble about those busy spaceships that must have carried bits of culture from Greece to Michigan, from Tokyo to Arkansas, and from Cairo to Florida (or perhaps vice versa), but it all rings hollow.

One is left with softer truths: All human societies, those of the frozen north and those of the tropics, those of mountain slopes and seasides, manufacture objects drenched with meaning, objects we might classify as art. The image of the hand, and that of the divided being, part animal, part human, and that of the spiral -- and a thousand more -- seem to belong to all cultures, not to one alone.

The National Gallery, in recent years, has mounted numerous exhibits of ancient and of tribal art -- from Oceania, Mexico, Central America and China. All these shows, and others, suggest one not yet seen. It would be wonderful to see an overarching exhibition that took on the whole planet, that surveyed all the ancient art made between the appearance of Cro-Magnon man, say 35,000 years ago, and the rise of the great agricultural civilizations. The carvings made by Ice Age man, and the bannerstones on view here, and ancient Chinese "harvest knives" and old hand-smoothed stones from central Australia seem to be linked visually at least.

Imagine it. "Thirty-Thousand Years of Art." They ought to do a show.

Scientists divide the era surveyed by this exhibit into three distinctive periods: The first is the Late Archaic (3000 B.C.-1000 B.C.). The second, called the Woodland Period, dates from 1000 B.C. to A.D. 900. The label "Mississippian" has been applied to the Woodland culture of the next 600 years.

Though archaeologist must search for dates, one feels few sharp transitions while looking at these objects. One of the major lessons taught by ancient art is that it does not much advance. Even the oldest objects here were the work of masters.

This is a splendid exhibition. Still, one cannot enjoy it without noting in one's pleasure an undertone of sadness. How much has been forgotten! How much destroyed or lost! Great now-abandoned cities flourished in this country. The one called Cahokia, near present-day St. Louis, enclosed 1,650 acres, and had a greater population than the London of its time.

The Woodland Indians were great traders. Marine shells from the Gulf Coast, and shark and alligator teeth, have often been discovered deep in the interior. Copper nuggets from the Great Lakes, in turn, were traded to the South. Mica from the Southeast has been found in the Northwest. Yellowstone River obsidian, and the awesome teeth of Rocky Mountain grizzly bears, have been found in the East.

The American Woodland Indians were warriors, artisans and traders -- and splendid engineers. The mounds constructed by the Indians of the Hopewell culture covered areas ranging in size from two to 1,320 acres. Some were square in plan, or round. Others were octagonal. Near the center of Cahokia is a mound whose base compares in size with that of Cheops' Pyramid in Egypt. Despite much erosion, it is still 100 feet high. To construct a single burial mound, the Indian engineers sometimes had to move a million cubic feet of earth.

One cannot recall the trade routes of the Woodland Indians, their cities, or their earthworks, without admiration. Nothing crude or primitive roughens the grand objects in the present exhibition. The artists who produced these things between 5,000 B.C. and the sailing of Columbus were as skillful and as subtle as any of the time.

Thirty of the objects in the Woodlands exhihition have been borrowed from the Thomas Gilcrease Institute for American History and Art of Tulsa, Okla., which has rarely lent its art before. Others have been lent by ethnographical museums (the Peabody at Harvard, the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, the University of Michigan's Museum of Anthropology), private collectors, and state historical societies. Among the 151 objects on display there are many of great beauty. The show was organized by David W. Penney, associate curator of the department of African, Oceanic and New World Cultures at the Detroit Institute of Arts. It is apparent from the start that one of Penney's major missions was to please the viewer's eye.

Among the most impressive is the recently discovered "Birger Figurine." It was unearthed at the BBB Motor site near Collinsville, Ill. This extraordinary statuette, made of reddish bauxite, shows a kneeling woman who digs her hoe into the earth -- the earth that is not just the earth, but a snarling serpent. From its tail springs a vine that grows up the digger's back -- where its bears plump gourds.

Another handsome figure is the effigy pipe called "Big Boy" from LeFlore County, Okla. He, too, is carved of bauxite. He wears his hair in a thick braid. Draped across his back is a cloak with feather symbols. He sits cross-legged on the ground, leaning forward, his hands on his knees, as if in meditation on some campfire's coals.

Both the figurine and the pipe were probably made between the Indian city of Cahokia and what is now Memphis. There are archaelogical indications that the "Big Boy" pipe was smoked for 200 years. It's the good art that we keep.

Pipes play a special role in the present exhibition. The smoking of a pipe -- like the ritual burning of some sacrificial animal in Greece or Rome or Israel -- was both a form of prayer and a way of communing with the gods.

Many of their pipes are splendid works of art. Lots of them show animals, bears, owls, coyotes. One of the most charming was discovered in the Bedford Mound, Pike County, Ill. It displays a little beaver, seated on his tail. Inset into his face are four buckteeth of bone. All have nicely yellowed. The beaver's eyes are pearls.

The Woodland Indians exhibition suffers from a flaw that, perhaps inevitably, afflicts most shows of old tribal art. We cannot look with pleasure at the works displayed without remembering our ignorance. Why does that curving snake become a vine with gourds? Why are those ancient bannerstones so exceptionally elegant? What songs were sung, what dances danced, before that hand of mica? Relying on our eyes, we receive but partial answers. There is much about this art, and about the artists who produced it, that we will never know.

"Ancient Art of the American Woodland Indians" will travel to Detroit and then to Houston after closing at the National Gallery on Aug. 4