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Historical Terms - Questions to ask of a source

A historian will ask a variety of questions in order to find out historical information about a source. The same questions can be asked of either a Primary Source or a Secondary Source. There are six key questions to ask:


Listed below are a selection of questions that might be asked of a source by a historian. Please note that not every question will be used for every source.



For Example:

WHO made it?        WHO used it?        WHO is in the picture?        WHOSE opinion does it show?

Roman Coins

Who made it? The Romans in AD 45
Who used it? The Romans
Who is in the picture? The head on the coins show who was emperor.


Roman coins made by the Romans in AD 45



For Example:

WHERE is it?        WHERE was it?        WHERE was it made?        WHERE was it used?

Mona Lisa Source

Where is it? It is in the Louvre art gallery, Paris.
Where was it? It was in Italy. It is now in the Louvre gallery, Paris
Where was it made? It was made in Italy by Leonardo da Vinci.
Where was it used? It was used to hang on a wall for decoration.


The Mona Lisa - Painted by Leonardo da Vinci in 1506



For Example:

WHAT is it?        WHAT is it for?        WHAT does it say?        WHAT was it used for?        WHAT does it show?

Book Picture

What is it? It is a book about the Tudors.
What is it for? It is for people to read/ find out about the Tudors.
What was it used for? It is still being used.
What does it show? It shows that people are interested in the Tudors.

A book about the Tudors written in 1999.



For Example:

WHEN was it made?        WHEN was it used?        When does it show?

Magna Carta Source

When was it made? It was made in 1215
When was it used? It was used in 1215 to force King John to grant concessions to the barons.
When does it show? It shows the feelings of the barons in 1215.

A piece of the original Magna Carta
signed by King John in 1215



For Example:

HOW was it made?        HOW was it used?        How has it survived?

A mug

How was it made? It was made in a factory - there may be a stamp on the base of the mug that gives details of the factory or potter.
How was it used? It was/is used for people to drink hot beverages from.
How has it survived? It has survived because it was made this year.

A mug made in 2009



For Example:

WHY was it made?        WHY has it survived?

Van Gogh Source


Why was it made? Because people like Van Gogh paintings and because there is only one original painting; posters like this enable many people to see art.
Why has it survived? It has survived because it is fairly new and has been looked after.


A poster of a Van Gogh painting made in 1985



Read about the difference between primary and secondary sources
primary and secondary sources link
See if you know the difference between primary and secondary sources
Source quiz
Answer questions about a jacket found on Titanic

Titanic source quiz
See what can be learned from a civil war painting

Civil War Painting activity



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Updated 13/05/2010
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