A fresh shipment of bones, especially when they may unlock a murder, always perks up J. Lawrence Angel, an expert on the skeletons of ancient Greeks and a part-time sleuth known by police as the "Bone Man."

So, on the morning of Jan. 24, with a new box of bones on the counter of his laboratory in the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, Angel was itching to get to work.

The box contained charred bones found 11 days earlier beside a flaming gasoline truck near Front Royal, Va. They were believed to be the remains of Montgomery County wine importer Roman M. Leimer.

"At a glance, in one second, or a fraction of a second, I knew the bones weren't human, Angel said. "Furthermore, they had been chopped. That wouldn't have stopped them from being human, but it diminished the chances."

He immediately took the bones around to the nearby office of a research fellow who specializes in animal bones. The bones belonged to a pig. Police speculate that Leimer, whose wine business was collapsing under debts and lawsuits, may have pulled a pig-for-human switch.

"It seems to me very silly, if that is indeed what he did," Angel said.

For a physical anthropologist who reads bones as easily as others read newspapers, uncovering such a switch is an insultingly simple task.

Over the past 21 years as curator of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian, James Lawrence Angel has helped identify the remains of more than 400 people, many of them murder victims. As an expert witness, he has testified at 13 murder trials at which 11 people have been convicted. He has helped identify people from partially incinerated teeth and bone fragments found in a trash can in Sycamore, Ill., from a coyote-gnawed leg bone found in the woods near Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, from a scar on the burned skin of a shrunken skull found in the District of Columbia.

The 68-year-old scientist, however, is a detective with ulterior motives. What he really wants are the bones.

"You can't get skeletons of children and you have a hard time getting skeletons of adults. This is one of the reasons for my interest in the forensic murder stuff," said Angel. "I mean it's true I like to prevent crime, but my real interest is to try to get skeletons, which will be identified, have a definite history and occupation and I can learn more."

With skeletons as his texts, Angel has spent more than 45 years examining, photographing, rubbing, sniffing and sometimes even tasting human bones. (He routinely tastes bones when he suspects they may have been in contact with sea water). Eleven times since 1937 the excavated bones of ancient people have lured Angel to Greece, Cyprus and Turkey. Bones reveal to him the sex, age, race, stature, body build, eating history, birth defects, occupational stresses, pregnancies, war injuries and dental health of ancient people, as well as of contemporary murder victims.

He has spent so much hands-on time with human bones that, when presented with an unfamiliar adult skeleton, he says he has "an immediate impression of sex and age which I must only stop to analyze when it comes down to signing some statement. The same is true of race."

Angel analyzes bones just as a good pro quarterback analyzes defenses. The anthropologist, in fact, likes that analogy. In his office--surrounded by dim hallways where there are more than 29,000 skeletons in the closets--there is a Latin sign which, in translation, says: "This is the place where the dead teach the living."

In that office last week, Angel, a small, slightly stooped man with balding stubbly white hair, elfin blue eyes and a clipped manner of speaking, explained how he sees living people in long-dead bones:

"The example is a skeleton from Corinth, which was found in an ancient marketplace and dates from about 900 B.C. I thought there might be something special about him. He was quite strongly built and taller than the average Greek. I began to notice certain peculiarities. A certain amount of arthritis in the upper extremity joints, shoulders and so on. And the right hand showing a lot of fractures and bruising, particularly the index finger and thumb. All of which I took to indicate that he had been right-handed and used a sword. I pictured a man defending his dark-ages city against attackers. I could see him in action."

The vision that allows Angel to examine 2,900-year-old bones and "see" a battling Greek also has enabled him to write what several eminent anthropologists describe as "pioneering" studies of the health of ancient civilizations.

"Angel is one of the people who's been a major force in transforming the study of old bones into a study of past biology. He's very important," said David Pilbeam, a professor of anthropology at Harvard.

"He sees things in bones," said William Bass, chairman of the department of anthropology at the University of Tennessee and a contemporary of Angel. "He sees wear patterns, pathologies, shapes and he always wonders why. He remembers things. Many people just report the things they see in bones, but Larry doesn't. He sits down and says, 'Why does this occur?'"

In anthropological circles, Angel is known as a slavishly methodical worker, a powerful thinker and a bit of flake.

"Larry is a little eccentric, I'd reckon you'd say. He can be in the same room working with you and he doesn't even realize you are there," said Bass, a well-known anthropologist and textbook author who's known Angel for 30 years. "I worked at the Smithsonian five years in the summers. Three times one summer he forgot meeting me. Absent-minded professor fits him perfectly."

Angel's appearance is striking because it is almost exactly what one might expect in an anthropologist.

"If Neil Simon or Walt Disney had to come up with someone to play the part of an expert on bones, it would be Angel," said Peter Letang, a Delaware lawyer and former prosecutor who called Angel as an expert witness in a murder case five years ago.

At work, Angel wears baggy wool pants, button-down shirts with the collars unbuttoned, half-rim eyeglasses and brown work shoes. "My wife thinks I under-dress," he admits.

When Angel testified in Wilmington he wore a bow tie, a dark cardigan sweater and what for years were his trademark, mutton-chop whiskers. He since has shaved off the whiskers.

"It is very difficult to cross-examine someone like Angel," said Letang. "He is so erudite and very believable. I also think his credentials lead one to believe what he says."

Angel was born in London, the son of an English sculptor and an American classicist. After coming to the United States at age 13, he was educated at Choate and Harvard. His interest in bones, he recalls, dates from his childhood when he was "terrified" by the skeleton in his father's sculpture studio.

At Harvard, he began studying classics, but found the subject "just plain too boring. It went nowhere and didn't really explain why human beings were the way they were. I thought anthropology might."

Angel's own bones, if they could be read by someone as informed as he is, chronicle much of his history.

"They would say I was wiry, but not massive at all. When I first went to Greece, I remember the Greek anthropologist John Koumaris looking at my skull and saying, in a rather insulting manner, 'If I had your skull I wouldn't know if it was male or female.'

"I would conclude that something had gone wrong with my left leg. I might conclude it was polio. I would notice that my left clavicle has a little spur on it similar to the kind of spur that women develop from breast feeding. I doubt if I would know enough to conclude that this came from my learning to box at age eight in London.

"The only thing wrong with either of my hands is a fracture on my left fourth finger which came from playing touch football with a bunch of Hopi Indians while he was studying Indian bones in New Mexico .

"There would be no indication from my bones that I was an anthropologist."

Since his health (he had heart surgery last fall) prevents him from traveling back to the Eastern Mediterranean in search of more ancient skeletons, Angel now is pulling together his life's work. He is writing a book, based on bones, about the health, nutrition and vigor of human beings from ancient times to the present.

One of the observations to be included in the book is that class and status change the bones of modern Americans just as they changed the ancient Greeks.

"Upper-class people, after more than one generation, will tend to be better nourished and taller," said Angel. "If I take my forensic skeletons and divide them according to economic origins, the upper-class males are taller on the average--taller by about three centimeters. Females show much less difference."

When he isn't writing, Angel teaches anthropology at George Washington University, conducts seminars for medical examiners and sifts through fresh boxes of bones that arrive about twice a month from police around the country. Angel also carries out his curatorial duties, for which the Smithsonian pays him about $60,000 a year.

Last week those duties had him photographing the bones of black slaves who died in the late 1700s and were dug up in 1978 near Catoctin, Md.

"It may not be obvious to you, but it is to me, this woman was horribly over-worked," he said last week, while fondling the humerus, or upper arm bone of a slave he estimated to be about 50 years old when she died.

Under doctor's orders, Angel now takes off Tuesdays and Thursdays. He hasn't always been so attentive to the directives of physicians. Three years ago, suffering from appendicitis and warned to stay in bed, Angel came to work to finish a monograph on 84 Bronze Age skeletons from Greece.

The monograph, entitled "Appendix 1--Ancient Skeletons from Asine," had to be mailed on the same day as Angel was scheduled to have his own appendix removed.

"I worked all day on the paper," Angel recalled. He had the operation that night. "I was thinking that if I didn't survive, at least I would have the paper done."

When police ask Angel to figure out how someone was murdered, the anthropologist finds it impossible to confine his interest to the murder alone. While murder fascinates him, he is more interested in how humans live.

Consider, for example, the case of the skull that showed up on the 18th green of the Hercules Golf Course in Newark, Del. A golfer put it in a trash basket near a ball-washer, played through and notified the clubhouse.

Three weeks later, the skull, along with most of a skeleton found near the golf course, was sent to Angel.

He did what he always does with the remains of those who are believed to have been murdered. Before reading one word of the Deleware medical examiner's report, he read the bones.

He sniffed them, trying to detect the smell of fat in the marrow. There was no smell so he knew they had to have been out in the open for longer than eight months. He examined the pelvis, spotting wear patterns convincing him the deceased had played a lot of sports. He noted knobby bumps on the jaw bone, concluding they were caused by habitual strong use of the muscles that thrust the jaw forward. He suspected the deceased had played a wind instrument.

The bones, Angel decided, were those of a white woman, 19 to 21 years old, about 5 feet 2 inches tall. The cause of the murder was rather obvious, at least to the bone man.

Found near the remains was a double noose of wire with a side loop around a piece of wood. Angle concluded the woman was strangled because one of her neck bones had been cracked just before her death. The only way to cause such a fracture, Angel concluded, was by twisting the noose.

He took his conclusions to court. In Wilmington, he was a key prosecution witness in the conviction of David Dutton, who is now serving a life prison term for murder. On a November evening in 1976, Dutton met Susan Spahn in a singles bar in West Chester, Pa. Later that night, he strangled her.

Spahn's life history was what Angel had seen in her bones. She was 20 years old and an active college athlete.

Outside a Wilmington courtroom in 1978, after testifying in the murder trial, Angel was still curious about how the young woman had lived. He asked her mother about those little bumps on Susan's jaw. Did she play a wind instrument?

Margaret Spahn, startled by the question, remembers telling the anthropologist, "Yes, Susan played the clarinet ever since she was 11 years old."