A Treasure Trove of Material about the Deep Past

2 Oct 2020 - 13:00
500 Year Archive(500YA) website banner. Picture courtesy of the FHYA.


A test version of the 500 Year Archive (500YA) is now available online ( for public consultation. It is proving to be a  treasure trove for researchers working under lockdown conditions.

The 500YA is one of the digital outputs of the APC's Five Hundred Year Archive project (FHYA). The project supports enquiry into the persistently neglected history of southern Africa before colonialism. One of the ways it does this is by developing novel digital research tools.

The 500YA is one such experimental digital research tool. It is designed to support historical enquiry into the five hundred years before colonialism in what is today KwaZulu-Natal and neighbouring regions.

Texts, images, sound recordings, excavated items and botanical specimens, as well as early vernacular materials abound on the site. The materials speak to a vast array of topics, anything from design histories to political, poetic and environmental pasts. Anyone interested in the clan histories of the region will be richly rewarded with results when they type their clan names in the search bar. The 500YA includes a growing digital repository of early texts, many of them vernacular publications.

Understanding that archiving is not a neutral act of preservation, the 500YA also seeks out and provides as much information as possible about the collection and custodial histories of these materials. It treats standard apparatuses of preservation (classification systems, labels, catalogues, index cards) not as neutral knowledge tools but as items of institutional culture that require critical unpacking.  

The content is drawn from local and international institutions and from personal sources. It is continually added to. 

The larger project, of which the 500YA is a component, has a range of other initiatives on the go, as well as other digital tools in design.

Watch out for the release of EMANDULO in early 2021. An archive for the distant past like the 500YA, EMANDULO challenges Euro-American assumptions built into the DNA of current open-source archival software, and provides an alternative open-source software that is a sustainable low-resource option.  

EMANDULO also offers a platform for showcasing contemporary curatorial projects that engage with the deep archive of southern African history.

The FHYA is also part of a larger consortium of projects under an African Digital Humanities (AFRIDIG) umbrella that seeks to integrate resources about the long Southern African past across the entire region.