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How to Write a Source Analysis Paper

Updated on November 20, 2014

History, Alive

The Terracotta soldiers of Ancient China
The Terracotta soldiers of Ancient China | Source

The Source Analysis Paper

History and Humanities majors are the most likely of all majors to be familiar with the concept of a source analysis paper. While different schools may approach the humanities and historical studies differently, understanding, analyzing and writing about original sources is an integral part of historical writing, and becomes a necessary exercise for history classes in particular. While the source analysis paper can vary in length and depth requirements, understanding the basics can make a seemingly daunting project more manageable, especially if you have a basic understanding of what's being asked of you.


History - an Important Subject for All
History - an Important Subject for All | Source

What is a Source, and Why is it Important to Historical Studies?

When many people think of the term "source", the first thing that comes to mind is ancient writings of some kind that are used to tell a story and give information about a topic being studied. Surprisingly for many, however, a source isn't always limited to writings. Sometimes a source can be an object itself, like the Terracotta Army of Chinese warriors left behind by Emperor Qin of the Qin dynasty. Other times, a source can be a burial site of an ancient Indian. Other times, the source can indeed be a form of writing. Understanding what makes a source a source and all the different forms a source can take is a critical part of starting the Source Analysis paper and understanding what is expected from you for your project.

Important Parts of the Source Analysis

The most important part of any research paper in virtually any subject is the Thesis Statement. The thesis statement of a paper sets the scope of the paper itself, and argues a position based on your own analysis of the subject matter. When writing a source analysis paper, its important to remember a single important fact. Your job is not to describe in rich detail the source itself. Many other forms of papers can be descriptive. In a source analysis paper, by contrast, you are making claims about a particular source - and it is your responsibility to make sure that the claims that you make are backed up by data. This can be accomplished by describing specific aspects of the source that lend credence to your claims, but a Source Analysis paper is not about description - it is about making claims and supporting them.

Apart from the Thesis Statement in your opening paragraph, there are two important things to address and one to put into practice in a Source Analysis paper, regardless of length of depth.

1. Analysis:
This is the first part of the paper where your thesis statement comes into play. You need to find a defensible and arguable position in your opening paragraph and create a statement about it that creates a claim that you're making about the source itself. And then you have to analyze the source in support of your thesis statement. While a source analysis paper doesn't have to be pages long (and can often be assigned as a single-page assignment multiple times throughout a class) it does have to be thorough and fit into the space that you are allotted to discuss and defend your thesis statement. Instead of focusing just upon describing the source itself, the analysis section of the paper means that you get to make statements and determinations about the source and explore these extrapolations in depth. Examine the culture, the history and the time period where the source originated. What can the source imply about those aspects, and how can that be expanded upon in your paper?

2. Be Specific:
Specificity in a Source Analysis paper means that not only do you have to interpret the meaning and implications of the source itself, but you have to find specific examples that support your claim and give support to your overall thesis statement and position. It's important to be as specific as possible to give weight to your thesis. Whatever position you take in your paper needs to be supported, and the more specific the examples, the more support your thesis statement receives.

3. Mindful Editing:
Since most Source Analysis assignments come with a page limit, it is incredibly important for the writer to choose specific examples and not waste any space on extraneous details or run-on sentences. Editing is a crucial part of any paper assignments and paper length is often a graded part of the process. It's important to stick to your assigned limits whenever possible, especially if you haven't received prior clearance from your professor to extend the length of your project. Many professors in colleges across the country will often dock points for exceeding the paper length, and it's understandable - when there's a paper assigned weekly for twenty or more students, reading one assignment that is double or triple the assignment length can be time-consuming. Edit carefully, making sure that the important facets of your arguments and examples are included. If you have to cut parts of your paper out, make sure that the critical pieces don't end up on the drawing room floor, which can directly affect your grade.

The Discovery of a Frozen Army

Shaanxi province, China:
Shaanxi, China

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Where the Terracotta Warriors Were Uncovered

Example of a Source Analysis Paper - The Terracotta Army

The Terracotta Army of Qin Dynasty China has become the epitome of imperial rule, influence and power ever since its discovery in 1974. While the Qin dynasty period in China was short lived, especially in comparison to the following multi-century Han Dynasty that followed, the Qin emperor Qin Shihuangdi left a remarkable stamp on history, collective memory and culture that cannot easily be dismissed. The Terracotta Army is a single yet impressive testament to Emperor Qin’s mark on history, and stands as undeniable evidence of his iron-fisted rule and attempts at control over himself, his people and his empire both in life – and after death.

According to Han Dynasty court historian Sima Qian, Emperor Qin was an impressive and powerful leader, who left more behind than his legendary army. Emperor Qin also left behind a legacy of infrastructure including roads, the foundations for the Great Wall of China and canals, while also unifying a writing system and a currency.[1] Qin’s focus on infrastructure in addition to his incredible army of pottery soldiers points to the influence, power and focus of his rule throughout his empire. Not only did Qin exert an iron-fisted rule over his people through his policies, but he also demonstrated remarkable control over resources and the countryside in the construction of his tomb – and the frozen warriors that guarded it. Each of the soldiers, horses, chariots and acrobats and even court officials that surrounded the tomb of the Emperor were individually sculpted and crafted, and were prepared in an effort to ensure the Emperor was accompanied on his journey to the afterlife.

Qin’s control over his empire is notoriously recognized to this day, but his efforts to exert that control even after death are captured in life-like detail in the army he left behind. In fact, the presence of the army indicates that Emperor Qin thought that, even in death, the empire would travel with him.

[1] “Emperor Qin’s Terracotta Army: The Story of Their Production,” K. Kris Hirst, accessed November 8, 2014,

A Mayan Burial

What can the items included in a Mayan burial tell us about the person who was buried there?
What can the items included in a Mayan burial tell us about the person who was buried there? | Source

Example of a Source Analysis Paper: A Mayan Burial

Recent excavations of Mayan burial sites in Guatemala and the surrounding areas have revealed surprising and startling results to a team of archeologists. These researchers were surprised to discover that two of the tombs inhabitants so far were female, and that based on their discoveries it appeared that these were rare female rulers of the Mayan people. The evidence of what has been discovered in the tomb alongside the human remains confirms this early hypothesis, and certainly indicates something special that set these burials apart from those of common non-ruling people.

First, the location of the tomb itself carries great significance, as archeologist Weislaw Koszkul from a University in Poland pointed out. “Because the Maya believed the east is very important, since 2003 I have had a hypothesis that…if there is a royal tomb in Nakum, it should be located in this structure”[1] In addition to the location of the tomb itself, archeologists found treasures that were left alongside the body – and that offerings were left near the tomb for two centuries after the body was buried.1 These offerings often help to confirm the hypothesis that the person buried within the tomb carried high status or position within the tribe. The presence of four knives painted with a blue pigment that was identical to the pigment used to paint sacrificial victims prior to being sacrificed to appease the gods lends further weight to the conclusion that a royal tomb had been uncovered. Signet rings and other items discovered with the body inside of the tomb offer additional clues. It’s clear that regardless of what position these people held in life, they were respected and revered after death, and these clues give credibility to the idea that a royal burial was indeed uncovered and excavated.

[1] Kaufman, Rachel. National Geographic News. September 22, 2011. November 14,2014)

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Cite Your Sources: Understanding the Chicago Citation Style

While there are a myriad of citation styles available, most are determined by a particular professor in class, or in a particular field. More and more research historians and academics in a historical field are turning to Chicago style citations for research papers. Understanding the style and what it requires (as Chicago style focuses more on footnotes included within the paper than a Reference page as in APA and MLA styles) is an essential part to documenting your work. Below is the link to a guide for Chicago style citations, complete with examples. In addition, Microsoft Word has a reference tab that can help create citations for you and insert them into your paper where you deem appropriate and necessary.

Any ideas that are taken from an outside source need to be referenced and documented thoroughly. If your sources are not cited properly, your grade can fall significantly. Not citing sources is tantamount to plagiarism, and can be cause for failure of a class - or even removal from your school. Citing sources is incredibly important for academic integrity, and failure to do so - even unintentionally - can have dire consequences.


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