The FHYA is part of a multi-institutional research consortium of three primary partners projects and other related projects. The consortium participates in African Digital Humanities programme. The other two main projects are the Digital Bleek and Lloyd and Metsemegologolo.

The projects share a focus on the southern African past before European colonialism. Straddling modern South African borders - Namibia, Swaziland, Lesotho and Botswana – the projects enable a regional focus. Key motivations for the consortium are its ability to boost research and public interest in the early history of southern Africa, to support the development of infrastructure and expertise, to leverage much-needed funding, and to breakdown persistent research silos which compartmentalise southern African history into mostly Cape-focussed Khoisan studies on the one hand and separated foci on a highveld interior inhabited by people classified Sotho/Tswana and the regions east of the Drakensberg/KaHlamba, inhabited  by people classified Nguni.

All of the projects deal with multiple mediums including text, images, sound, material culture, landscape and environmental data of various kinds. They share a focus on developing research infrastructure, tools and online curations designed to foster research and general interest in the remote past, including that of educators and learners. Key to this are sustainable and inexpensive digital solutions. The University of Cape Town’s Digital Libraries and Archives specialist, Prof. Hussein Suleman (Department of Computer Science) supports the consortium with research into and development of sustainable, low-resource software tools and infrastructure.  

The Primary Partners

Five Hundred Year Archive (FHYA)

The Five Hundred Year Archive (FHYA) project is a multi-institutional project for the development of digital resources and infrastructure to support enquiry into the southern African past before European colonialism. It seeks to stimulate and support research and creative work, public knowledge of, and interest in, these periods, currently the most neglected and persistent gap in our knowledge and understanding of the southern African past. 

The FHYA does this by making materials that are dispersed, mis-labelled and often marooned in institutions locally and internationally available online. It does this so that they can be used as sources, not just for academic researchers but also for creatives and other interested parties. Using a cross-institution, cross-medium, cross-disciplinary approach, it seeks out oral, sonic, graphic, cartographic, textual and botanical material. Making these diverse forms available in one setting, the FHYA reframes the materials, releasing them from persistent colonial framing and categorisations, and positioning them mutually to illuminate each other. It also facilitates the contribution of materials and commentary on existing ones. The distinctive feature of this project is that critical and reflective research and scholarship is deeply embedded in the arrangement and presentation of the materials.

Digital Bleek and Lloyd

The Bleek and Lloyd Collection began in the 1860s as a language project but has developed into a multifaceted collection of interviews with |xam and !kun speakers, recording languages, dialects, stories, personal and family histories, and cosmologies. The collection is a unique holding of material related to the |xam of southern Africa and whose lives intersected with the Korana, the Nama, the Griqua, the Dutch and the British, as well as other traders and missionaries; and the !kun who lived on the border of Namibia with Angola, and whose lives intersected with several groups classified as Bantu-speakers, as well as traders, officials and human traffickers operating in Namibia in the 19th century.

The Centre for Curating the Archive at UCT which is responsible for the Bleek and Lloyd Collection has worked actively to identify and bring widely-dispersed materials together in one digital space and to expand the collection and its resonance by assembling online other collections related to it.


Metsemegologolo, meaning “ancient towns” in Setswana, reflects the project’s focus on abandoned Tswana settlements within the theme of early African urbanisms. It seeks to enhance the archival nature and functionality of materials available for the study of the southern African past and to develop an innovative system to make them accessible, to support teaching and learning, and to facilitate interactive participation. The project explores the use of space and landscape as an organisational principle alongside archival principles in relation to materials not traditionally considered ‘archival’.

Metsemegologolo aims to create a spatially organized open-source archival repository to accommodate diverse objects (text, photos, illustrations, archaeological datasets, 3D models, multilingual dictionaries etc.) It has a trial system that makes provision for both an object view and a spatial view in which the objects are located in a particular landscape. Using this system, the project continues to engage and experiment with questions of metadata, digitisation, and accessibility – how materials are represented (as the same item can be represented and stored in many different ways).