The Five Hundred-Year Archive Online Project: A Preliminary Summary


Five Hundred Year Archive

The Five Hundred Year Archive (FHYA) is a project of the NRF Chair in Archive and Public Culture, based in the History Department, University of Cape Town. Its aim is to stimulate engagement with the neglected eras of the southern African past before the advent of European colonialism through digital innovation.

Enquiry and research in this area is hampered by the inaccessibility of archival material. Researchers can make use of material found in museums and a variety of other places but the material is often dispersed, unrecognised, misplaced, miscategorised, misidentified and undated. Some of it, like archaeological material, is difficult for those not working within the specialized field to gain access to. Some of it is in circulation in family and community life. 

Project Aims

The FHYA aims to develop understandings of the archival possibilities of materials located both within and outside of institutions, in an array of media formats, and to facilitate their engagement. The FHYA locates materials and attempts to reveal and record as much as possible about their conditions of production, framing and reshaping over time. This includes records of the custodial histories of the materials. The FHYA  either augments existing frameworks in ways that go beyond what is typical for archives, or reframes the materials. In particular, the FHYA seeks to release materials from colonial framing. It then makes them accessible online. The FHYA also enables others to contribute to the project.

Digital Functionality

The use of digital technology allows the FHYA to bring together items that are located in various places in South Africa as well as scattered across the globe. In certain international instances this takes the form of a semi-repatriative move. Where international holding institutions do not repatriate materials, the virtual format makes the items visible and available in digital form in southern Africa. 

An immediate effect of the FHYA’s convening activity is the accumulation in one place of archival "bulk". This is significant in the assertion of the presence of the archive in public life and in countering widespread ideas about the remote past as being without an archive.

The "bulk" offers researchers a depth of available source material. Researchers interested in matters as diverse as dreams,  metals and umbuso in the late independent era can enter these as search terms and get results from, amongst other things, recorded oral accounts, early vernacular press items, early travellers' accounts, sound recordings, archaeological, ethnographic and art collections, private research collections, novels and praise poetry, archived ethnographic texts, as well as research papers. Importantly, the FHYA commitment to maximum searchability allows researchers to go beyond the limits of indexes, tagging and pre-existing categories to find material in unanticipated places and to make novel connections, often breaking with inherited colonial orientations and expectations.  

Presenting these items in a digital format online means that a vast range of people, in many different places, can find out about what exists as the archival record. The digital items that they find online are, of course, not archival originals. Those exist in repositories or in individual hands in many different places, often framed in very different ways in their home settings. For some investigators' purposes, the items online will be sufficient. Others may use the digitised items as a kind of online index that helps them find materials that they may need to consult in person. The FHYA makes items available in a relatively low-resolution format to facilitate ease of access to a broad spectrum of users with a variety of devices.

Experimental Digital Archives

The FHYA currently has two experimental digital archives online. The 500 Year Archive uses a customised version of open-source archival software, AtoM (Access to Memory). To overcome some of the in-built limitations of AtoM, the FHYA used local open-source software, Simple DL, to develop a second archival platform,  EMANDULO. EMANDULO was launched on an experimental basis in 2021 and is currently undergoing testing, review and improvement.

These archival websites were initially launched using materials pertinent to the KwaZulu-Natal region. The geographic focus has since been broadened to encompass the surrounding regions of what is today the Eastern Cape, eSwatini and Lesotho. New materials are constantly being added to the sites.

The FHYA has a third digital archival site in design, re-source, designed to support digitisation-led archiving.The option is offered as part of the UCT History Department’s MA course, History in Public Life. However, re-source is envisaged as a multi-purpose digital curation opportunity for researchers more generally. Re-source takes the form of an online digital archive combined with exhibition/presentation functionality. It is platform for re-archiving, re-presenting  and re-curating inherited materials; for archiving new things as well as historically excluded materials; and for making these re-worked or new archival offerings  and their innovative curations accessible online. It offers an opportunity for building new kinds of archive that open to new epistemological futures.