Interpreting and Analyzing PRIMARY SOURCES
We want to thank Mr. Babichenko
of Wakefield High School for
What is a Primary Source? A primary source is a piece of living history. It may be defined
as any artifact that provides first hand or direct information about the past. Primary sources
may include first person accounts (e.g. oral histories, diaries, memoirs, correspondence),
documents (e.g. correspondence, treaties, laws, speeches), images (e.g. maps, photographs,
drawings, paintings), or historically gathered data.
How do you begin to interpret a primary source?
Begin analyzing a primary source, such as a spy letter, by answering the following questions:
Who created the source and why?
What sorts of information does the source supply?
Under what circumstances was the source created? How would this influence the
content of the source?
For who was the source created?
Was the source meant to be public or private?
Did the creator wish to inform, persuade, or deceive his or her audience? What did the
creator hope to accomplish by writing the source? Can you trust the source's content at
face value?
What were the opinions, motivations, or interests of the creator? How does his or her
point of view compare to other writers of the period? What kind of impact would this
have on the content of the source?
For analyzing images, the following questions are also a starting point:
Why was the image created?
What does the image reveal about its subject?
What is the point of view of the image? Whose story is it telling?
What is the setting of the image? What sorts of details does it include or emphasize?
What sorts of details does it exclude?
What are the underlying messages of the image and motives of the artist?
How long after the event was the image created? How does this influence the image's
content or perspective?1
Because it is hard to keep all the above mentioned questions in mind, follow these
acronyms in order to better remember the process of interpreting and analyzing
primary sources:
T – Time Period (when doc. was produced)
S – Speaker (author) and hi/her Status
A – Author (any info. about him/her)
O – Occasion (when doc. was produced/delivered)
P – Purpose (intended purpose/tone of the
A – Audience (intended audience for the doc.)
P – Purpose (intended purpose of the document)
S – Subject
T – Type of document (ex: diary, contract, etc.)
A – Argument(s) (main idea(s) in the doc.)
A – Arguments (main ideas expressed in the doc.)
B – Bias (prejudice/favoritism expressed in the doc.)
B – Bias (prejudice/favoritism expressed in the doc.)
Source: Twelve Tablets, excerpts, Ancient Roman Code of Law, 450 B.C.E.2
V. 1 "Our ancestors saw fit that "females, by reason of levity of disposition, shall remain in
guardianship, even when they have attained their majority."
VI. 2 Marriage by `usage' (usus): If a man and woman live together continuously for a year,
they are considered to be married; the woman legally is treated as the man's daughter.
X. 4 "Women must not tear cheeks or hold chorus of `Alas!' on account of a funeral."
XI. 1 "Marriage shall not take place between a patrician and a plebeian."
1). What do these excerpts tell us about the status of women in Ancient Rome?
2). What conclusions can be made about the Roman society of that time in general?
Acronym-based break down: (usually done on the margins of the paper, next to the
document, or, when you get really good at it, in your head!)
T – time period
A – author
P – purpose of the document
T – type of document
A – argument(s)
B – bias/prejudice
450 B.C.E (times of the early Roman
No specific author information provided
To inform citizens of Rome of their rights
Official legal document – must be followed!
(1) Women are subordinate to men; (2)
Roman marriage/social customs are
Women naturally are inferior to men
Answers to the questions related to the primary source:
1). What do these excerpts tell us about the status of women in Ancient Rome?
Women in Ancient Rome were considered inferior to men (V.1 and VI. 2), and this status was part
of the Roman legal system (laws).
2). What conclusions can be made about the Roman society of that time in general?
Roman society was legally unequal. Romans of one social class (patricians) were not allowed to
marry their fellow citizens from another social class (plebeians). This means that one of the classes
was considered more important or was recognized to have privileges and high status than the other
class. This was similar to how men in Rome were considered even by law superior or naturally
better than women.
The fact that the primary source is the formal/legal document tells us that Rome was a well
developed civilization. People knew what was expected of them and what they were not allowed to
do in terms of their duties and behaviors.
The most important thing to figure out when you are interpreting primary sources is
the AUTHOR’s POINT OF VIEW (What is it? What factors (SOAP AB or TAP TAB
stuff) influenced it? Etc.)
Author’s Point of View (POV)
Julius Caesar3
George Washington4 Nelson Mandela5
I am sure you’ve heard of individuals
portrayed here. Each of them was a
product of his time. In turn, events of
the author’s time period and his social
status influenced ideas in the authors’
writings. For example, slavery was an
acceptable institution during the time
periods of Julius Caesar and George
Washington, but was outlawed and
considered immoral when Mandela
grew up and fought for freedom. Your
main job is to understand what factors
influenced points of view expressed in
primary source documents.