Alexandria is a city that digs its history.

With picks and shovels, the city has developed an archeological program that has excavated its way to being regarded as one of the best in the nation.

"San Francisco, Houston, Baltimore, Boston . . .they're all calling," says Pamela Cressey, director of the Alexandria Archaeology Commission, which runs the oldest and largest city-funded program of its type in the country. "They want to see what we are doing, so they can do it, too."

What Alexandria is doing is spending $117,000 -- or five times as much as New York City and 15 times as much as Boston -- to explore what lies beneath its sod and asphalt.

The commission has dug up thousands of pieces of colonial pottery, a 1759 wharf, black slave communities, and a tidal lock on the old Alexandria canal that once linked the city with Georgetown. On Oct. 3, they will begin excavating another discovery: a 1841 pottery kiln.

The enthusiasm for archeology in this city that counts George Washington and Robert E. Lee among its former citizens is based on more than just a love of history. Other factors that officials say have whetted the desire to dig include generous city funding, tourist rivalry with Washington and the support of many residents.

Baltimore archeologist Elizabeth Anderson Comer said that although her city is the ninth largest in the country, "we can't possibly be as close-knit as Old Town," the oldest part of Alexandria, where the digging is pursued. And without a groundswell of community support, she said, persuading a city to channel scarce resources into nonessential underground ventures is almost impossible.

Compared to the $8,000 Boston puts into its new program and the $25,000 that Baltimore allots to its two-year-old program, Alexandria taxpayers seem like archeological spendthrifts. What is more, the impact of Alexandria's $117,000 has been multiplied by the use of 2,500 volunteers since 1977. In 1984 alone, city officials say, volunteers will donate $60,000 worth of labor.

All of New York City's archeological work is financed privately. Like most big-city archeologists, those in New York either find independent funding or toss their projects back on the ash heap.

"You can't underestimate the power of a city-funded project," said Annapolis archeologist Mark Leone, who said that he "owes considerable debt to Alexandria" for lending his new program "everything from moral support to community members."

As valuable as the municipal dollars that Alexandria's archeology receives, Leone said, is the city's cooperation on zoning, planning, utility shutdowns, and the continuity of an overall master plan.

Alexandria's comparatively small size, with a population of 103,000, also means that its soil has not been meddled with as much as that of more developed cities. Says Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Director Paul Perrot: "Alexandria was enlightened before being bulldozed into oblivion."

Ten years before this latest rash of urban archaeology, Alexandria had been poking around in its buried past, said Perrot. The city had the luxury of empty lots and untouched sites, he said, whereas "other communities caught on too late. There was nothing undisturbed left."

At least part of Alexandria's "enlightenment," Perrot said, stems from its rivalry with the District. He said the city on the "other" side of the Potomac is determined to prove that "small-scale monuments are just as important for one's sense of identity and continuity as the grand."

Alexandria draws about a million tourists and $150 million into the city each year. Before this year ends, 60,000 people are expected to have passed through the new city-funded, state-of-the-art archeological laboratory in the Torpedo Factory Art Center at the foot of King Street.

As long as it offers something distinctly different from the District, and particularly Georgetown, Cressey said, "people will still come out here for the small-town historic atmosphere." She added that the "changing complexion of Georgetown to an entertainment spot," already is sending more people to Alexandria.

Barbara Magid, an Alexandria archeologist, said that with each new find Alexandria attracts more history buffs.

"People who like historic ambiance come to live here" Magid said. "They like the idea that George Washington laid out the street grid in 1749 and that whole streets are intact as they were in the federalist period."

Recently, so many people have volunteered to help with the estimated 35 to 50 hours of preliminary work required for every hour of digging time, that Cressey has had to turn some volunteers away.

Never have interest and support been as high, she said. And Alexandria officials anticipate so many onlookers for the upcoming dig at the 19th-century pottery kiln site near the King Street Metro station that Magid, the project director, is afraid "we won't even be able to get the work done."

I'll be there," says one of Alexandria's most dedicated volunteers, Alexandria Archaeological Commission Chairman Ben Brenman. "I live in the layers of history beneath the street, anyway. Now other people will have a chance to see what I've been looking at all along."