Imagine, if you can, a man entering the National Gallery of Art with a high-speed drill in his hands.

He does not pause to study, reflect on, even notice the history around him. Methodically, he walks around the hall, impaling portraits, massacring sculpture, boring holes in still lifes.

Would there follow a hue and cry? Like you never heard.

Fiction? Sure. But an all too similar pattern is played out every day in the Washington area, without much notice or protest. The folks with the drills are construction workers. What they are endangering is the archeological raw material of a region that was first settled about 100 bicentennials ago.

The local hardhats aren't on some wanton rampage. Either by policy or law, most government construction cannot begin before an archeologist visits a proposed site and blesses it.And standard labor agreements provide that if a construction worker bumps into something that looks archeologically promising, he must stop drilling right then and there so an expert can come look.

But nothing binds private contractors in the area. And nothing can assure that even good intentions don't stumble over themselves.

The oldest saw in the archeology business is the one about the lady who brings a box of fossils and arrowheads to a specialist one day - and says she didn't think it was important to note where and in what order she found them. Sadly, this one isn't always fiction.

Robert L. Humphrey and Mary Elizabeth Chambers are trying to do something about all this. They don't claim to know the best way. Maybe education of the public. Maybe laws. Maybe both. But they would like to have made peace with the Washington-area construction industry before, as Humphrey puts it, "they pave over every last little damn piece of ground."

Humphrey and Chambers, both archeologists, have extensive experience at Washington-area sites. Humphrey is chairman of the George Washington University anthropology department and president of the Anthropological Society of Washington.Chambers, an archeological consultant for a local research institute and for the Smithsonian Institution, spent two years doing field studies along the Piscataway River in Maryland.

The conflict they have noted over and over is between the time-is-money thinking of contractors and the one-step-at-a-time approach of academicians. An added problem for scholars is that many sites that might be promising are already coated with concrete. "We're 50 years late in many cases," says Humphrey.

Archeologists in the Washington area have encountered almost no resistance from individual construction workers. "A lot of them are very interested in this stuff," said Chambers. "I think it helps alleviate a little of the tedium," added Humphrey.

Nor, surprisingly, does there seem to be much of a problem with the big, big contractors.

While you might think that Metro digging produced the most massive collection of free holes local archeologists were ever handed, it ain't so. Any dig more than 10 feet below the surface would bypass - or destroy on the way down - most chances of finding anything significant. "Metro probably didn't do much worse than anybody else," said Humphrey.

Metro insists, in facts, that it has done rather well.

"Certain areas were laid out in advance" for special archeological handling, said Bill Aldredge, Metro's director of construction. "We ran into some old cannonballs once, but other than that, we just haven't found very much."

That is a bit of a surprise, for there is little question that the Washington area was highly and heavily developed back in the Good Old Days.

For instance, an Indian nation of perhaps 300 persons thrived in the 17th century along the eastern bank of the Anacostia River, according to Humphrey and Chambers. Remains of hunting tools, burial plots and hut foundations suggest a community both organized and stable.

But where is the village today? Buried that abound in and along the western edge of Rock Creek Park? Most are now roads and sidewalks. As one local archeologist said, any federally owned site not already paved over is subject to the Washington version of Murphy's Law: "Whatever the government can do to make your digging a hassle, they will do."

Humphrey and Chambers think three areas urgently need addressing: buying time from constructors so sites can be surveyed, persuading local governments to take an interest, and educating construction workers.

Although most lobbying is done on the national level, Humphrey and Chambers think Washington-area governments would be receptive to a law requiring an archeological examination before a dig begins. It would only be reasonable, they add, if such a law applied to both public and private construction.

The place where such laws would do the most good, of course, is in the relatively unspoiled suburbs. In the District of Columbia, developed wall-to-wall, such laws would amount to whistling Dixie. "The District government doesn't even have a staff archeologist," huffed Humphrey. Maryland and Virginia do.

As for educating hardhats, all it would take would be funds to prepare a guidebook. The book could be distributed through unions, foremen or governments. Humphrey wrote one for the troops who built the Alaska pipeline, and both he and it were warmly received. Why not here?

"The thing that continues to bother me," said Humphrey, "is that D.C. lies in such an interesting ecological area. We're within shouting distance of the five major paleoindian sites on the east coast. I just think that any time we're cutting into virgin soil, there damn well ought to be an archeologist there."

You'll forgive the pun, but I can dig it.