Monday 26 March 2012

Prehistoric Britain.

In recent years the two postal services which actually issue stamps in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Universal Mail United Kingdom and Royal Mail, have issued a number of interesting stamps which depict features of Britain's earliest history, or, pre-history. A species of man is thought to have been present in Britain as long ago as 800,000 BC as judged by the discovery of bones and flint tools in Norfolk and Suffolk. At that time Britain was linked by land to continental Europe with The English Channel existing only as a large river flowing westwards and fed by tributaries which were to later become the rivers Thames and Seine. Remains of Homo Heidelbergensis have been found at Boxgrove in Sussex and using hand axes these people hunted elephants, rhinoceroses and hippopotami, herding them over cliffs and into bogs to more easily trap them. The onset of the Ice Age rendered Britain uninhabitable but humans reappeared in Britain during a warmer phase from about 300,000 to 200,000 years ago. The earliest remains of neanderthal man in Britain date from around 230,000 BC but subsequently sea levels rose and separated Britain from Europe and human activity in Britain gradually diminished and there is no evidence for any human activity in the islands during the period from 180,000 to 60,000BC. Subsequently, from 60,000 to 40,000 BC Britain was grassland populated by mammoths, giant deer and horses, rhinoceroses and wolves, bears and cats such as the sabre-toothed tiger. On 21 March 2006 Royal Mail issued a set of 5 stamps depicting prehistoric mammals from that period and as well as the stamps illustrated below the designs depicted a rhinoceros and a cave bear.
Subsequently humans reappeared in Britain but there was another severe ice age with much of Britain covered in ice and again mostly uninhabitable which was at its most severe from 22,000 to 13,000 BC. After the disappearance of the ice for the last time, with Britain once more attached to the continent, men returned in increasing numbers, first as hunters and then, from around 4000 BC, as farmers. It is from this later neolithic period that the designs for the rest of the stamps issued by the postal services are taken. Universal Mail produced a booklet of 5 stamps in July 2011 for sale by Historic Scotland which, as well as featuring the Scottish flag on each stamp, also depicted aspects of the neolithic settlement in Orkney. From 3300 BC the inhabitants of the islands constructed remarkable buildings even taking the form of whole villages, such as Skara Brae.
The village consists of eight houses all linked by a stone-lined passage. The houses even include stone furniture such as a "dresser" on which the residents would have shown off their prize possessions. Other sites in neolithic Orkney depicted on the Universal Mail stamps are the enormous monument of the Ring of Brodgar which now consists of 22 raised stones. This monument was also depicted on a stamp issued by Royal Mail as part of a set of eight which was a joint issue with Australia and released on 21 April 2005.
Close to Skara Brae, at Maes Howe, is a large passage grave:-
There are a number of other astonishing constuctions from that period on Orkney but the Universal Mail stamps also illustrate other aspects of prehistoric life in Britain and one of the designs depicts the "Orkney Venus" which dates from about 5,000 years ago. It is a small figure, 41mm tall, and it is the earliest known example of the carving of a human face to have been made on a figure in The United Kingdom. It is thought to have been made by shaping a sea pebble. Experts are not yet sure if it was carved as a sacred object, a simple figurine or even a toy.
On the mainland in England, the greatest stone age monument to be built was, of course, Stonehenge in Wiltshire, which was built in phases starting about 5,000 years ago first as a circular ditch with a bank heaped up around the outer edge and with two entrance gaps and a circle of 56 wooden posts. Later the timber was replaced by enormous stones, the bluestones, weighing one and half tons each, and brought from southern Wales. Later these stones were moved to make way for the sarsen uprights, as much as 40 tons each in weight, and then in the final phase the bluestones were returned as a circle within that of the new stones. This entire construction was a remarkable feat and is justifiably depicted on two stamps:-
The Royal Mail stamp is part of the above mentioned joint issue with Australia and that by Universal Mail was issued in September 2009 in booklet no. UK0011 (dated 05/09) which contained five different stamps depicting scenes of south west England. The final stamp of the Universal Mail "Orkneys" booklet depicts the Broch of Gurness. Brochs are massive, hollow-walled stone towers and date from 600 BC onwards. Their role is not known. That at Gurness is 12 feet tall although it is thought to have been 3 times taller when it was first built. Items found inside the tower give evidence that the local inhabitants were trading with the Romans and, by then, having passed through the Bronze Age, and being firmly in the Iron Age, the British Isles were indeed of interest to the Roman Empire. Many useful commodities were to be found in the islands.
In 55 and 54BC, the Roman General, Julius Caesar landed in Britain and attempted unsuccessfully to commence an invasion of the islands. It was not until AD43 that the Romans successfully established themselves in Britain and began their conquest of a large part of the islands. The Emperor responsible for this was Claudius and he was depicted on one value of a set of 4 stamps issued by Royal Mail on 15 June 1993 to commemorate the 1950th anniversary of the beginning of the Roman occupation which would last for 350 years.

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