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Browsers of the Stone Age

Apologies for the lack of blog action: I've been on my holidays. Next week, I'm off again on business – it involves 'brand development' and 'global strategy', which is more fun than it sounds but nowhere near fun enough to blog – so radio silence will continue for a little longer.
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Apologies for the lack of blog action: I've been on my holidays. Next week, I'm off again on business – it involves 'brand development' and 'global strategy', which is more fun than it sounds but nowhere near fun enough to blog – so radio silence will continue for a little longer.

Just time, though, for a quick essay on "What I did on my holidays". I went up to Orkney for a week of island R&R. Orkney is the largest of the Orkney Isles, an archipelago north of Scotland absolutely saturated with fabulous archaeology, geology, wildlife and distilleries. Frankly, I can't see why anyone lives anywhere else. Fortunately, they do – leaving all that wildness for them that knows.

At one point in my expedition, I found myself on Hoy – 55 square miles of classic Scottish highland transplanted into the sea, a dramatically empty island (population 400) with one road up the east coast and nothing, but nothing, up the west or in the middle. There's one glen that runs east-west through the centre of the island, a golden-brown heather and peat landscape cut from towering cliffs and hills. Apart from the road that runs along the bottom it has just one man-made feature: the Dwarfie Stane.

This is a lump of limestone roughly the size of a Hummer, thought to have been deposited in the glen by the glaciers of the last ice age. In Neolithic times, about 5000 years ago, the inhabitants of the area saw fit to hollow it out (no small task before metal) and turned it into what looks very much like a chambered tomb. Nobody knows anything about what was deposited in it at the time or how it was used: it's a unique piece of prehistory, and utterly mysterious.

But I had an experiment to conduct, and I was not alone. My partner in crime – and life, inasmuch as they differ – is a Scottish radio producer and historian, who has a particular taste for exploring what the people of the past actually got up to. She and I were of common mind in what to do at the Stane.

There is a current theory that some Neolithic construction was designed with audio in mind, with particular resonances that transform the human voice in mood-altering ways. She had a broadcast-quality digital recorder. I had my history as a chorister, and a certain interest in psychoacoustics. You can guess what happened next: we stuffed ourselves into the Dwarfie Stane, which has about as much room inside as a rather crushed London cab, and she encouraged me to sing.

Not that I need much encouragement. I ran through a few scales, and we found a very marked resonance around one note – probably around F below middle C, by ear, but don't hold me to that – where the Dwarfie Stane came alive. It was a very sharp resonance, and only worked at one end of the cavity; the other end was acoustically dead. That's not proof that it was designed that way, but it's intensely suggestive.

Scales weren't quite good enough; I wanted to sing something.

Absent any knowledge of what hot tunes were top of the Neolithic pops, one must improvise. I chose the most ancient music in my repertoire, a plainsong Christian hymn that dates from around the fourth century AD. It's the oldest in the canon – "Before the ending of the day". The tune came easily but it's been a while since I wore a surplice and I couldn't quite remember all the words. What's a chap to do?

Google. I pulled out my smartphone and, mirabile dictu, got enough GPRS signal to feed the browser – I suspect from a base station in Petertown on Orkney, just visible ten kilometres away across the sea between the islands. I may not be the first person to log into the Web from within a carved Neolithic tomb in a landscape largely unchanged for five millennia , but if you want to commune with the ancestors you might as well go with what works.

I found the words to the hymn – ignoring as best I could the various chirps from Outlook as it sought to remind me of the many work meetings I'd missed – and set to work. The first verse went well; I pitched the hymn at the key which matched the resonance of the tomb, fortunately in the middle of my range, and felt the Dwarfie Stane pick out some marvellous harmonics. For a moment, there was a sense of connection with a very distant time.

I started on the second verse. At the point where the hymn asks the Lord to "Tred underfoot our ghostly foe, so no pollution we may know", the ghostly foe struck back. An unsuspected MIDI script embedded on the web page finally loaded and triggered the phone's synthesiser, which fired up with the most hideous fake organ sound imaginable – in completely the wrong key and with a jaunty syncopation that suggested Satan himself on the Bontempi.

There now exists, I am sorry to tell, a recording of some very rude words indeed.

We recovered. I muted the phone, drew breath, and started again. If nothing else, it gave the ancestors a good laugh: given the pain and cussing which undoubtedly accompanied their use of flint-based technology in hollowing out the lump of sandstone in the first place, it seems apt that the tools of 2008 still retain the demonic ability to turn around and bite us on the bum.

However, it probably took them decades of hard slog – and every night, they went back to some rain-sodden haunt in the darkness. We finished up in ten minutes, trolled back to the rental car, put on the radio and the heater, and sped back to the ferry and the Royal Hotel in Stromness. There, we were served up tempura squid in a chilli dip, free wi-fi, and a fine selection of local beverages.

Modern win.

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