Norvic Philatelics - GB New Stamps and Special Postmarks

Ancient Britain - stamp issue 17 January 2017

Royal Mail starts its 2017 Stamp Programme with a subject that has not previously been featured as a stand-alone topic: how people lived in prehistoric times has always been a fascination for many and the Ancient Britain stamp issue explores this subject in some detail.

The stamps show famous iconic sites and some of the most exceptional artefacts found across the UK, and overlays illustrations to show how people lived, worked and used the objects. We also explore the social and technological evolution of these early Britons.

The first metals were used in Britain while still in the ‘Stone Age’. The arrival of cultures that could ‘make metal’ would have a dramatic effect on society. In the British Isles the first seams of copper were exploited in Ireland around 2500BC. The discovery of tin in South West England helped to make Britain an important centre – copper smelted with an amount of tin makes the superior metal bronze: harder, more durable and versatile and the so-called Bronze Age saw several other technological advancements.  Overall, the stamps give a timeline across thousands of years of history, from a glimpse of Stone Age ritual of 11,000 years ago, through the Bronze Age and into the Iron Age of some 300 BC.
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Set of 8 Ancient Britain stamps. 
Stamp Set - in horizontal se-tenant pairs

1st class
- Battersea Shield, Skara Brae village.  £1.05 – Star Carr headdress, Maiden Castle Hillfort;

£1.33 - Averbury Stone Circles, Drumbest Horns;   £1.52 - Grimes Graves, Mold Cape.

Stamps in detail

Battersea Shield, Iron Age – 1st Class
FIND-SPOT: River Thames, Battersea, London, England   EXHIBITED AT: The British Museum, London
Shields from the Iron Age are rare. They were mostly made of wood which has not survived. The Battersea shield is exceptional. Crafted from bronze with inlaid glass, it was ceremonial and held together by concealed rivets. It is highly decorated with engravings. It was placed in the River Thames as an offering, where many weapons have been offered in sacrifice. The shield gives a glimpse of the war-like culture of much of the Iron Age as well as the rituals of life. The complete shield is about 78cm (2½ft) long. The panels are made from thin beaten sheet bronze, decorated with repoussé, engraving and red-enamel inlay. The designs are Celtic in style, comprising interlocking circles and spirals connected by S-shaped curves.

Skara Brae Village, Neolithic – 1st Class
LOCATION: Bay of Skaill, Orkney Islands, Scotland
An example of an extremely early settlement is Skara Brae on Orkney. Unlike in many other parts of the UK, by the third millennium BC there were few trees on Orkney and stone was therefore the building material of choice (which of course can survive for millennia). Today 8 recognisable houses remain, the earliest dating from around 3200BC. Fashioned in stone are beds, shelves and storage containers, around a central hearth. Prominent in each home is a ‘dresser’ made of flagstones. The inhabitants used beautifully decorated Grooved Ware pottery and had a rich material culture of worked stone and bone. Their diet was based on domesticated crops, wild plants, fish, seabirds and the products from sheep, goats, pigs and cattle.  Skara Brae is part of the 'Heart of Neolithic Orkney' UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Star Carr Headdress, Mesolithic – £1.05
FIND-SPOT: Star Carr, near Scarborough, North Yorkshire, England EXHIBITED AT: The British Museum, London
Excavations over the last 70 years have revealed three brushwood and timber platforms along the edge of what was once Lake Flixton, as well as evidence of houses on drier ground away from the shore. Among the rich collection of worked stone, flint, bone, antler and wood were more than 30 frontlets of red deer. All had been extensively worked, with the antlers trimmed, and some had holes cut through the skull. These strange items were probably masks or some kind of headdresses. They may have been used as a disguise in hunting or during ritual performances in which people took the place of an animal. It is likely that the original skin formed part of the attire, which may have been worn by shamans when communicating with animal spirits.

Maiden Castle Hill Fort, Iron Age – £1.05
LOCATION: Near Dorchester, Dorset, England PUBLIC ACCESS: English Heritage
The population of these islands exploded in the Bronze Age, and society became agrarian, dependent on the land and settled. Soon there was pressure placed on available land. In the ‘Iron Age’ we see the development of enclosed land and ‘hill forts’, upland areas, sometimes ringed with defensive earthworks. The largest of these, such as Maiden Castle in Dorset, have huge defensive ramparts (some 5.5m high) built from around 400BC (although first peoples on the site date as far back as 3000BC). Within the enclosed area would have been storage facilities for grain and people lived in timber round houses.
     A long sequence of occupation on this hilltop overlooking the River South Winterborne was revealed through excavations in 1934–37 and 1985–86. Early occupation includes a causewayed enclosure at the eastern end built around 3550 BC, a long mound along the spine of the hill built around 3400 BC and an early hill fort with a single rampart enclosing 6.4ha (nearly 16 acres) built around 600 BC. The great multivallate hill fort whose earthworks dominate the site today was built around 400 BC, enclosing 19ha (47 acres) – the largest hill fort of its type in Britain.

Avebury Stone Circles, Neolithic, £1.33

LOCATION: Avebury, Near Marlborough, Wiltshire, England PUBLIC ACCESS: National Trust and English Heritage
With a more settled lifestyle came changes to how society was organised, and perhaps also religious beliefs. With food surpluses it was possible to organise people’s labour away from subsistence activities. From around 3000BC saw the building of large monuments in the UK, either earthworks or the more familiar circles of stones and standing stones. One of the most impressive and one of the largest in Europe is at Avebury in Wiltshire. Building commenced in around 2500BC there are a total of three circles and avenues of standing stones plus associated earthworks.Four entrances give access to the flat central space some 350m (383yd) across which once contained a series of stone structures, comprising 98 unworked pillars of local sarsen stone. Within there were two further circles. The southern circle of 29 pillars surrounded a single standing stone or obelisk. The northern circle of 27 pillars surrounded a ‘cove’ of three massive uprights forming the sides of a box-like structure open to the northeast. The massive earthworks possibly served to contain powerful spirits while providing a grandstand from which to observe ceremonies inside the henge. At least two of the entrances link with stone-lined avenues defining pathways out into the landscape that connect Avebury with nearby monuments and the River Kennet.  The Neolithic sites of Avebury and Stonehenge are in a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Drumbest Horns, Bronze Age - £1.33
FIND-SPOT: Drumbest, Near Ballymoney, County Antrim, Northern Ireland EXHIBITED AT: The Ulster Museum, Belfast
Further examples of exquisite metal work are the Drumbest horns. Discovered in 1840 in a bog in Northern Ireland, these are among the best preserved such horns in Europe. Very finely made, they would have been striking and shiny when new. It is believed that they were played in pairs, one producing a drone like a bagpipe, and the other notes. These are in the Ulster Museum and provide an insight into the sophistication of the metal working as well as the culture of peoples in the later Bronze Age (around 800BC). Experiments show that these instruments would have made deep resonating sounds when played like an Australian didgeridoo. Two of the horns were side-blown and could have provided a backing drone; the other two were end-blown through a caston mouthpiece and could have carried a melody. Rings would have held straps to support the instruments while being played in public rituals, battles or during raids. Regional styles can be recognised, and on a wider compass they are closely connected to the lurs of southern Scandinavia and the Baltic coastlands.

Grime’s Graves Flint Mines, Neolithic - £1.52
LOCATION: Weeting With Broomhill, Near Thetford, Norfolk, England PUBLIC ACCESS: English Heritage
Flint was the dominant tool crucial for making edged tools and weapons in prehistoric times. It had been used for thousands, perhaps millions of years, but the early agriculture promoted a population growth, and this in turn meant that forests needed to be cleared and fields prepared. The demand for flint led to organised excavation of mines. The Grimes Graves Flint mine (around 2500BC) is one of the largest found in the UK, and for more than 1000 years workers dug hundreds of shafts to reach seems of flint. Much of the best flint was obtained from mines in the chalklands of South East Britain. Some flint was exported to far-flung communities as nodules, but much of it was worked into tools as it came out of the ground, and these were traded across the country.

Mold Cape, Bronze Age - £1.52
FIND-SPOT: Bryn Yr Ellyllon (Goblins’ Hill), Mold, Flintshire, Wales EXHIBITED AT: The British Museum, London
Among the precious metals worked were gold and some outstanding ancient examples remain. In Mold, Wales, a beautiful ceremonial gold cape was discovered in a burial mound of some 1900-1600BC. A prestigious item, it was possibly used for ceremonial purposes and it has been suggested would have been worn by a high-status woman (perhaps a ‘priestess’). Made by hammering out a 700g (1½lb) ingot of gold, this dazzling object formed the upper part of an elaborate garment that was restrictive to wear but stunning in its impact. It was found by workmen in 1833 while quarrying stone from a large round barrow. With the cape just 465mm (18 in) wide, the wearer must have been young or of slight build.

Technical details:

The se-tenant stamps are designed by True North and stamps are printed by International Security Printers in lithography.  The stamps are 41 x 30 mm, and printed in 4 sheets, 30/60 per sheet. 

Acknowledgements: Illustrations by Rebecca Strickson;  Battersea shield, Star Carr headdress and Mold cape photos © The Trustees of the British Museum; Skara Brae village photo by Rolph Gobits © Royal Mail Group Ltd 2017, taken with the kind permission of Historic Environment Scotland/Àrainneachd Eachdraidheil Alba;  Maiden Castle hill fort photo © Skyscan Photolibrary/Alamy Stock Photo;  Avebury stone circles photo by Rolph Gobits © Royal Mail Group Ltd 2017, taken with the kind permission of the National Trust;  Drumbest horns photo by Jonathan West © Royal Mail Group Ltd 2017, taken with the kind permission of Ulster Museum, Belfast; Grime’s Graves flint mines photo by
Rolph Gobits © Royal Mail Group Ltd 2017, taken with the kind permission of English Heritage

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This page created 21 December 2016

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