The Five Hundred Year Archive is a project of the NRF Chair in Archive and Public Culture, based in the History Department, University of Cape Town (www.apc.uct.ac.za).
It seeks to stimulate engagement with the neglected eras of the southern African past before the advent of European colonialism. Enquiry and research in this area is hampered by the absence of accessible archival material. Researchers can make use of materials found in museums and a variety of other places that are not regarded as "archives", but the material in these other places is often misidentified, undated, and misplaced. Much is fragmented and dispersed across the world. Some of it, like archaeological material, is difficult for non-archaeologists to gain access to. These are the kinds of challenges that the FHYA project addresses. It aims to develop and promote understandings of the archival possibilities of materials located both within and outside of institutions and to facilitate their engagement. The FHYA locates these materials, places them in the kind of archival framework that readies them for use in thinking about the remote past, augments the archival framework and then makes them accessible online.
Currently, the FHYA consists of two exemplar projects, the 500 Year Archive and EMANDULO. These exemplars or prototypes are designed to show what is possible. For the purposes of these exemplars, the FHYA selected a limited number of bodies of material pertinent to a small region (the southern Swaziland-KwaZulu-Natal region and adjacent areas) in a limited time period (the late independent period, from about 1750 to various points in the late nineteenth century). The exemplars deliberately draw material from diverse collection settings, covering a large range of disciplines and occurring in a variety of forms (amongst others, archaeology, botany, ethnology, ethnography, history, and oral memory). The different bodies of material were selected for the kinds of challenges and difficulties (amongst others, epistemological, discursive, political, practical, technical, financial and copyright) which they present to the establishment of a Five Hundred Year Archive.
The use of digital technology allows the FHYA to bring together scattered multimedia materials relevant to the five hundred-year period. An immediate effect of this combination is the creation of archival “bulk” which is significant in the assertion of the presence of the archive in public life and in countering persistent ideas about the remote past as being without an archive. The "bulk" offers researchers a depth of available source material. A researcher interested in metals in the late independent era can enter a search term like "brass" and get results from, amongst other things, archaeological, ethnographic and art gallery collections, recorded oral accounts, early travellers' accounts, private research collections, and praise poetry, as well as research papers and information about the exhibition of brass items. The Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative which is responsible for the FHYA is using these prototypes to advocate for the extension of its content to cover more of what is available in the KwaZulu-Natal-Swaziland region, and to stimulate interest in its application across the whole southern African region, as well as to encourage institutions to make their holdings more accessible to researchers and the interested public.