Lane Kirkland, the 57-year-old heir apparent to the AFL-CIO presidency that Goerge Meany is leaving at the age of 85, has no wish to emulate Meany's longevity in office.

"I'll wear out my welcome in a few years," he told a friend recently, "and besides, I have other things I want to do with my life. I hope to get out of here with enough of my faculties to study archeology."

The fascination with the buried relics of past civilizations, which goes back to arrowhead hunting on the farms of his Camden, S.C., hometown, is just one of the offbeat elements in the complex makeup of the little-known man who seems almost certain to be elected as Meany's successor at the November AFLC-CIO convention.

Kirkland, a 30-year veteran of the union bureaucracy and the secretary-treasurer of the federation since 1969, is a blend of seemingly contradictory elements.

He is a soft-spoken intellectual, who can -- at times -- use deckhand language to underline his gut commitment to the organizing rights and meat-and-potatoes goals of trade unionism.

He is an instinctive seeker of compromise in internal union politics whose passionate opposition to communism has made him even more of a hard-liner than Meany in international affairs.

He is, in both his union and Democratic party loyalties, an organization man to the core. But he may well find himself drawn into a battle against the incumbent president of the United States while still trying to consolidate his own position as president of the labor federation.

The biggest contrast most Americans will see is the difference in personality between the outspoken, gruff and cigar-chewing Brooklyn plumber who is Meany, and the detached, chain-smoking egghead who is Kirkland.

The heir apparent has managed to remain all but invisible to the public while exercising growing influence inside the labor movement. A reporter who happened to be following his stocky figure through National Airport this summer saw not a flicker of recognition in the faces of any of the hundreds of travelers Kirkland passed.

He was on his way that day to the dedication of a new hall of the United Furniture Workers in Nashville, and he observed that "these little unions really appreciate when someone from headquarters shows up. It means more to them."

It is through 30 years of taking care of the little chores that Kirland has cemented the relationships that make him all but immune from serious challenge as Meany's successor.

The son of a Camden, S.C., cotton buyer, Kirkland joined the Merchant Marine in 1940 and sailed in convoys throughout the war.

He came to Washington in 1947, working for the Navy Department while studying at Georgetown University at night. A year later, he took a job on the research staff of the American Federation of Labor and moved up through the union bureaucracy to become Meany's executive assistant in 1960 and secretary-treasurer nine years later.

From his early years, there has been a fascination both with party politics and international affairs.

Regarded as one of the best writers and thinkers in the labor movement, Kirkland took leaves to write campaign speeches for both Alben Barkley and Adlai E. Stevenson. While Meany has had an off-again, on-again romance with the Democrats through the years, Kirkland is a deep-dyed partisan, who seems likely to try to swing the AFL-CIOs muscle behind moves to build greater party cohesion and discipline.

His succession is welcomed, privately, by many at the White House, who think that as a fellow southerner, Kirkland will be less prickly for Carter to deal with than Meany often has been.

However, those White House aides who have heard Kirkland's blunt assessments of what he regards as the "amateurism" of many of Carter's moves are less confident he will be an easy ally for the president.

And many of Kirland's union associates predicted yesterday that Kirkland's main goal in 1980 will be to keep the federation united politically behind one candidate, whoever it is. If Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) develops as much rank-and-file union support as many expect, "you can be sure Kirkland will move in that direction," one colleague said. "And he won't be the last to get aboard the bandwagon."

Kirkland, like Meany, is a liberal on racial and economic issues and a staunch anticommunist abroad. He has characterized the Soviet Union as a nation that is "aggressively hostile to what I think is important to this country and trade unionism."

His own belief in high-level military preparedness to curb Soviet power is strongly reinforced by the views of his wife, Irena, a native of Czechoslovakia who survived a Nazi prison camp and lived in Israel before her marriage to Kirkland.

Both Kirklands have identified themselves prominently with the cause of Soviet Jewish refugees, and she once told a reporter, "The United States can never spend too much on defense; it can only spend too little."

Yet Kirkland has a record of accommodating himself to political realities. Although he has been an outspoken critic of Carter's liberal trade bill, he congratulated Robert S. Strauss for skillfully picking apart the labor coalition and lobbying that bill to passage. Last August, when he presided over the AFL-CIO executive council for the first time for the ailing Meany, he put aside his personal doubts about the strategic arms limitation treaty and led the council to an endorsement of SALT II, accompanied by a call for heavy defense spending.

That pattern of political accommodation mixed with reiteration of principle is one that can expected often as Kirkland moves to consolidate his position in the federation's leadership.

Some union officials think Kirkland will move quite cautiously in 1980 to forestall what they see as the greater possibility of a challenge to his reelection from some ambitious union president at the 1981 AFL-CIO convention.

While oldtimers in the union movement recall that Meany himself was first viewed as a short-term transitional president, Kirkland has vigorously denied he has any wish to emulate Meany's long tenure.

His avocational interest in archeology is a serious one. He became an avid "digger" during his peripatetic years as a merchant seaman, and has continued the hobby on holidays in both Israel and the Caribbean.