Detail in medieval painting reveals prehistoric artefact

Researchers believe that an object in a 15th-century painting is actually a handaxe that could be as much as 500,000 years old. 

Half a million years ago, our human ancestors began to use large, stone tools known as “Acheulean handaxes,” to cut meat and wood, and dig for tubers. Often made from flint, these prehistoric oval and pear-shaped tools are flaked on both sides and have a pointed end.


Handaxes have long been a source of fascination in our social and cultural history. Prior to the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, people thought that they were of natural origin and referred to them as “thunderstones shot from the clouds,” according to texts, with the earliest records dating back to the mid-1500s.

Detail of the Melun Diptych – photo by Saliko / Wikimedia Commons

But researchers from Dartmouth College and the University of Cambridge have identified that “The Melun Diptych” (circa 1452), painted by Jean Fouquet, depicts what is likely the earliest artistic representation of an Acheulean handaxe, demonstrating that these objects had an even earlier place in the modern world. The findings are published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal.


“The Melun Diptych” was commissioned by Étienne Chevalier, who was from Melun, France, and served as treasurer for King Charles VII of France. The diptych is comprised of two oil paintings on wood panels: “Étienne Chevalier with Saint Stephen” on the left, and “Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels” on the right.

The researchers found that an Acheulean handaxe appears to have been represented in the left panel. In the painting, Chevalier is depicted wearing a crimson robe with his hands folded together as if he were praying while Saint Stephen, his patron saint, is standing next to him holding the New Testament as a stone object resembling a handaxe rests on top of the book. The stone object symbolizes the death by stoning of Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr.

Art historians have always referred to the stone in “The Melun Diptych” as a “jagged stone” or a “large, sharp stone,” but no one had ever identified it as something human-made. However, Steven Kangas, a senior lecturer in the Department of Art History at Dartmouth and study co-author, had a hunch that it wasn’t just a rock.

“I’ve known about Fouquet’s painting for years and I had always thought that the stone object looked like a prehistoric tool,” says Kangas. “So, this was always sort of stuck in the back of my mind, as something that I needed to pursue in the future.”


That future arrived in 2021 when Kangas attended a seminar at Dartmouth about the Isimila site in Tanzania, which is famous for handaxes. The talk was delivered by Montgomery Fellow Charles Musiba, a professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado-Denver and an expert on human origins in Tanzania and South Africa.

Acheulean hand-axe from Egypt. On display at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology of London. Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) / Wikimedia Commons

After the seminar, Kangas chatted with Musiba and Jeremy DeSilva, a professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at Dartmouth and co-author. Upon showing them a picture of the left panel of “The Melun Diptych,” the professors agreed the stone object in the painting resembled a handaxe.

To investigate this further, the researchers collaborated with colleagues at the University of Cambridge, who led the analyses of the painted stone object in the diptych.


The team conducted three analyses. They investigated the overall teardrop shape of the stone object in the painting using an approach called Elliptical Fourier Analysis, which quantifies the shape of an object. They found that its shape was similar (within 95%) to other Acheulean handaxes from the region where the paintings were made.

The researchers examined the stone object’s colour and compared its colour to that of 20 French Acheulean handaxes. Although the colours in the painting are possibly distorted by the pigment and varnishes that have been applied, the colour variation on the object’s surface of yellow, brown, and red hues was consistent with other handaxe artifacts. As the co-authors report in the study, the high level of color-variation on the surface indicates that Fouquet went to great care and detail to paint the stone object. An infrared analysis of the painting revealed both an underdrawing and an underpainting for which the stone object had clearly been reworked.

A close-up of the stone object depicted in Étienne Chevalier with Saint Stephen alongside (b) the raw outline coordinates used for the EFA analysis and (c) the Procrustes-transformed coordinates for the painted stone object are shown alongside all other artefacts used in the EFA. Acheulean handaxes from La Noira (d) and Saint Acheul (e) are also shown. Note their similar colours and shape to the object painted by Fouquet. A representation of the colour-sampling method is also shown (f), with the vertical and horizontal axis sampling location in yellow, and the eight locations of maximum colour diversity in teal. Image courtesy Cambridge Archaeological Journal / CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 DEED

Although an artist always has artistic license when creating their work, Fouquet may have been replicating an actual handaxe or recreating one from memory. “Fouquet seems to have taken a special interest in the stone object, probably because he had seen one that struck his attention and imagination,” adds Kangas.

The researchers counted the flake scars on the surface of the painted stone object. On average, they found 33 flakes on the surface, which was consistent with the average identified on 30 handaxes that were randomly selected from their French handaxe assemblages.


“The data from our shape, color, and flake scar analyses of the stone object in the painting were remarkably consistent with that of other Acheulean handaxes from where Fouquet lived,” said co-author James Clark, a graduate student in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge.

Prior research has provided evidence of pre-Homo sapiens species in Europe using Acheulean handaxes, making them one of the longest-used tools and most investigated Paleolithic artifacts.

“I love this idea of connecting a handaxe—a utilitarian object that helped hominins survive half a million years ago—with a medieval French painting, which is so well-known that it’s taught in introductory art history classes,” says DeSilva. “From the Paleolithic Age to the Renaissance and beyond, handaxes have been—and continue to be—part of human history.”

The Melun Diptych is considered one of the most famous paintings from medieval France, with Jean Fouquet regarded as one of the most important French artists prior to the Renaissance given his ability to work with oil paint. The Virgin is believed to be based on Agnès Sorel, mistress of French king Charles VII. Today, the two halves of the diptych have been split up, with the left panel at the Staatliche Museen in Berlin and the right panel at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp.

The article, “Acheulean Handaxes in Medieval France: An Earlier ‘Modern’ Social History for Palaeolithic Bifaces,” by Alastair Key, James Clark, Jeremy DeSilva and Steven Kangas, is published in Cambridge Archaeological Journal. Click here to read it.