A few years ago, when Delaware police found a skeleton near a golf course, they brought it to anthropologist J. Lawrence Angel in Washington, D.C. First, Angel smelled the bones; the lack of any odor of decay told him that the person had been dead for more than eight months. Second, wear patterns on the pelvis convinced Angel that the victim was athletic. Finally, knobby bumps on the jawbone suggested that the deceased had played a wind instrument. On the basis of Angel’s conclusions, police eventually identified the murder victim as Susan Spahn, 20, a college athlete who had been missing for 14 months, and had played the clarinet.
Such supersleuthing is only part of Angel’s dual job: Officially, he’s curator of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian, in charge of the 29,000 skeletons in that institution’s vast closets. Less officially, to police across the nation, Angel is Sherlock Bones, a wizard at sifting clues from skulls, femurs and fibulae. On an average of twice a month, crates arrive in his lab at the National Museum of Natural History. In 21 years of detective work he’s helped identify the remains of 400 people. Says Angel, 68, “It’s my job to bring these skeletons to life so they can tell their side of the story.”
The stories are often interesting, and usually grisly. Four months ago Angel determined that half a dozen tiny bones—all that was left of a Burtonsville, Md. truck driver supposedly incinerated in a fiery gas tank explosion—were actually pig bones. The police now suspect the accident may have been faked. Over the years Angel has helped identify an Idaho couple from coyote-gnawed remains, two murdered Montana girls by stress marks on their leg bones caused by horseback riding, and an elderly woman, found last year in a ravine behind the National Zoo, by recognizing that scrapes on the clavicle were from a recent mastectomy. Not a job for the queasy, certainly. But somebody’s got to do it, and Angel does it very well. “When it comes to identifying bones,” says Dr. James Luke, the District of Columbia Medical Examiner, “Angel is the last word.”
Perhaps that’s because he started early. The son of an English sculptor and his American wife, Angel became interested in bones when he was startled by a skeleton hanging in his father’s studio. Later he studied classics at Harvard, but switched to anthropology, he says, “because books just couldn’t explain why human beings were the way they were.” He earned his Ph.D. there in 1942, and came to the Smithsonian after teaching anatomy for 19 years at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. He and his wife of 46 years, Peggy, a former teacher, live in a brick Colonial house in Bethesda, Md.
Angel’s jobs haven’t made him insensitive to suffering; far from it. A deeply religious man who sings in his Unitarian church choir, he got up to speak about a murdered young woman at a 1980 forensic conference in Niagara Falls and told his audince that the sad events reminded him of a biblical passage. Then, to his listeners’ amazement, Angel broke into a hymn: “By the Babylonian rivers we sat down in grief and wept.” He literally won’t hurt a fly, and never kills the beetles he uses in his lab to consume flesh traces from bones. Says Peggy, “Larry is very gentle with babies and small animals, things that are vulnerable.”
With bones, he is simply fascinated. Poring over a treasured new find—a pre-Christian skeleton just arrived from Greece—he ticks off the highlights: “From the stress marks on this lower femur [thigh bone], I’d say this man rode a horse,” says Angel. “And from the fractures on his humerus [upper arm bone], he probably wielded a sword. I suspect he was a military officer who died riding to the defense of Athens.” Put your ear to the bones, and you can hear the clatter of hooves.