Sixteen-year-old Ariel Martinez, a visually handicapped student from Montgomery Blair High School, explained how he detects the little pieces of ancient jasper rock and clay pottery he is digging for at an archaeological site in Front Royal, Va.:

"I hear the rocks when I am scraping the dirt."

Archaeology graduate student Theresa Clewlow, watching Martinez, agreed with the method. "When you scrape for rock, you can hear a sound even before you see or feel it. It rings. Ariel's been very good at detecting rock areas."

Martinez has almost no sight. He is one of seven physically handicapped Montgomery County high school students who, along with five sighted county high school students, are spending two weeks at three archaeological sites being excavated by Catholic University in Front Royal, Va.

These students and 11 others who spent two weeks at the sites earlier this month are part of "Project Uncover," funded by a $15,500 grant from the National Science Foundation, to interest handicapped youth in the sciences.

They join other high school and graduate students who dig for prehistoric remains of clay pottery, tools made of a glass-like rock called jasper, and colored "stains" that show where structures once stood. All are the remnants of Indian civilization in the Shenandoah Valley from 10,000 to 1,000 B.C.

The idea of sending handicapped students to the dig was the brainchild of county school administrator Harriet Howard, who helps develop alternative special education programs. Noel Thornberg, a teacher specialist who works with the physically handicapped, co-authored the proposal and is a coordinator of Project Uncover.

"It was the craziest thing," said Howard, "I thought, what could we do to take handicapped kids on trips to interest them in science?Take them on an archaeological dig! I called Noel Thornburg right then at eight in the morning, and he loved the idea. I also had in the back of my mind finding out where kids could do this - how their self-confidence would develop if they could hold their own. I could see kids with no mobility stretched out on a board sifting through the sand."

According to Howard, handicapped students have little opportunity to be away from home much less he involved in scientific researched like this. "What do kids do when they graduate from high school? They go off to Europe," she said. "With handicapped kids all that is not open to them. I thought they needed a chance to travel."

They traveled to Front Royal along with two county teachers - Dave Cramer and Margaret Zack, as "companion, friend, parent."

Under makeshift canvas awnings to shelter the diggers from the hot, hazy sunlight that filters down into the Shenandoah Valley, students sit cross-legged, heads bent, intently scrapping away at the moist red-brown dirt that is meticulously mapped. Everyone digs away at his or her neatly marked squares of dirt from 8:30 in the morning until 4 or 5 p.m., breaking only for lunch. The county students sit next to graduate students and other high school student who come from aroung the county to work at the Catholic University summer field school.

They survive the mosquitoes, flies, hot weather and backaches. Keith Evans, a wheelchair-bound 17-year-old with little motor control of his hands, shifted through dirt specimens all morning, explaining that the flakes of rocks and pieces of pottery he was looking for might date back as far as 7000 B.C.

"We didn't expect him to be here this long," said site manager Kim Snyder, a graduate student at Catholic University, in the afternoon. "He's not very strong, but he's been here since 8:30 a.m."

Jay Custer, a site manager and graduate student at Catholic, commended the Montgomery students' progress after three days on the site. "This is the best bunch of field school kids we've had," he said. "They're more interested in what they're doing. They're more used to doing things a little difficult. We've had kids here bored after 10 minutes who start falling asleep in their dirt squares."

Howard, on a visit to Front Royal to watch the students from Project Uncover, beamed at the praise from the archaeologists. "That's just what we wanted to get out," she said. "If people would just give these kids the opportunity, just let them try to do these things. And the handicapped kids put so much of themselves into their work."

Any communication problems with the hard-of-hearing students are solved by site manager Bob Verry, who knows American sign language, or by writing things out. But most of the hard-of-hearing students on the dig speak very understandably, a result of good special education at a very early age - sometimes infancy - said Thomas O'Toole, another county school administrator who works with physically handicapped students and who helped organize Project Uncover.

Any problems between the handicapped and the non-handicapped students seem to have worked themselves out, said the students. "We all kind of help out," said Sam Ives, a sophomore at Churchill High School. "If we're going to dinner, we'll help the guy in the wheelchair get there."

One of her hard-of-hearing handicapped roommates taught Rockville High School senior Tracy Mould sign language. "They're basically as good as we are," Mould said about the handicapped students.

Some of the students said they would consider archaeology as a career. Jay Christensen, a 15-year-old 10th grader from Gaithersburg High School who is hard of hearing, has a great-uncle who was an archaeologist. "I've always been interested along those lines," he said.

"I love it," said 17-year-old Brenda Proffitt, a hard-of-hearing sophomore at Rockville High School. "If everything goes well here, I may become an archaeologist."