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The Five Hundred Year Archive

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

Five Hundred Year ArchiveResearch and enquiries into aspects of the southern African past in the periods predating the existence of European imperial and colonial archives have been complicated by the absence of contemporary written sources. One crucial move to address this apparent obstacle has been to make use of physical objects and sonic items. Yet much of the material concerning the remote southern African past – including artifacts in daily use, objects that testify to trade activities and creative works is misidentified, often undated, lost or dispersed in institutions across the world or held in settings that are largely inaccessible private and/or not recognisably archival. By archival we mean made available for use in such a way that their origins and provenance, and multiple histories across time, are foregrounded. A second concern lies in the ways this material, as well as the written documents that refer to earlier independent periods, was shaped by colonial and later apartheid knowledge practices.

The aim of this project, The Five Hundred-Year Archive (FHYA), a name provided by an earlier initiative (see Swanepoel N., Esterhuysen, A and Bonner, P (eds.), 500 Years Rediscovered: Southern African Precedents and Prospects (Johannesburg, Wits University Press, 2008)- is to develop and promote understandings of the archival possibilities of materials located both within and outside of formal archives and to facilitate their engagement. It does this in order to stimulate interest, research and enquiries into the southern African past.

An initial move in this endeavour is the creation of an accessible online exemplar, which is capable of convening, in a virtual format, visual, textual and sonic materials pertinent to these periods. The exemplar aims to be a conceptually innovative intervention geared to engaging, in a critical manner, inherited forms of knowledge organisation. It is being constructed to work across multiple institutions and to incorporate a variety of media formats, be capable of handling diverse objects, and provide context, by taking into account, most notably, the provenance and spatial and temporal locations of the various materials, as well as their multiple histories. The exemplar is designed in such a way as to facilitate recognition and understanding of the ways in which disciplinary conventions and colonial and apartheid knowledge practices have shaped the materials concerned. In some cases, it unpicks aspects of that shaping, notably the forms of classification to which such materials were subjected historically.

The project is a feasibility exercise that explores the possibilities of new ways of thinking about, and stimulating activity in relation to, archives for a region long denied an archive; a region that was offered instead ideas of timeless traditional culture. It does not aim to create an authoritative, stand-alone digital archive that will exist in perpetuity. It is, instead, a catalytic intervention that seeks to activate new kinds of archival energies.

The Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative (APC), based at the University of Cape Town, with the support of the KwaZulu-Natal Museum, Wits Historical Papers and the Killie Campbell Africana Library, and with expressions of interest from a number of overseas institutions, took the lead in raising the funds for an initial three-year project, which directly addresses both the conceptual and technical aspects of such an endeavour. The initial feasibility study is made in relation to one area (what is today southern Swaziland, KwaZulu-Natal and the north Eastern Cape region of Southern Africa), but is designed in such a way that its regional coverage could be readily extended in an aggregative way to a much wider geographic area. The feasibility study has two phases: an initial consultation and preparation stage (July 2013 – June 2014) and a second implementation stage (July 2014 – June 2017).

Rationale and Scope

There are several reasons for why the southern African past before the advent of European colonialism remains one of the most under-researched aspects of the history of the region. Of these two stand out. Firstly, while some of the relevant resources are text-based, many exist in other forms, the archival potential of which is not readily apprehended. The second reason is the way in which the bulk of the materials pertinent to the remote past came, through a combination of politically-charged processes and certain discipline-based academic interventions, to be treated as timeless, traditional and tribal materials.

The FHYA project aims to bring into a single searchable framework, through an online exemplar website, a variety of such materials, providing as much relevant information as possible about their production, use, meaning, collection/provenance, preservation, alteration and circulation over time. While the focus is on materials pertinent to the five hundred years immediately before colonialism and the early colonial period in which many aspects of the preceding periods persisted, we know that much of the material with which the project is concerned will have been assembled and subjected to some form of processing, preservation and management in subsequent periods.

The challenge in refiguring the five-hundred-year archive in this fashion involves finding ways to enable collaboration across particular institutional mandates in a manner that enhances the research profile of each institution and engages its constituencies. While the actual objects, and indeed most probably their digital surrogates, will be retained in their respective institutional homes, the intervention will coordinate interaction across institutional barriers, connecting related objects which are separately housed, thereby actively breaching the separate silos created by disciplinary or medium-specific constraints. The project will attempt to provide an example capable of precipitating and facilitating a national, and potentially regional, conversation about underdeveloped and neglected aspects of the southern African archive with implications for the Catalytic Project of the Department of Higher Education on the pre-colonial past. Hence, it is both a conceptual and a technical intervention.

The conceptual aspect draws on a now well-established body of work on the production of colonial and apartheid knowledge, as well as on that of the making of the southern African archive, and on emerging radical scholarship on the de-colonisation of knowledge. One aspect of the critical work involved has concerned itself with what the APC terms “the ethnologisation of the past” (see This involves recognition of the archival potential of ‘ethnologised’ materials that were historically exiled in institutions and spaces other than archives, the liberation of certain of the materials from inappropriate or politically-charged forms of categorisation, as well as rethinking the status of the concept of ‘archive’ itself.  

The conceptual and intellectual work necessary to prepare for the FHYA online intervention began in an APC workshop in 2012, which resulted in a book (Tribing and Untribing the Archive: An investigation into the constituting of the material record pertinent to the late independent and colonial periods of southern KwaZulu-Natal) in press in 2015. As the book manuscript indicates, a key intervention needed to develop an archive for the period is to treat items that were not historically deemed archival, notably visual, material and sonic items, as archives and not merely as sources. The FHYA exemplar is designed to try and facilitate such an approach. However, the FHYA simultaneously critiques the notion of archives as places where things are stored largely unchanged. It makes central to its methodology an approach which attends to how the things which offer archival possibilities themselves shift and change across time.

The conceptual aspect is further informed by insights gleaned from an emerging field of study centered on the Indian Ocean. Historically, the sources available for enquiry into the distant past have been sought in collections and documents in southern Africa and in the former European imperial centers, as well as in the bodies of traditional material in circulation in southern Africa. The Indian Ocean work alerts us to the possibilities that items of archival significance for the period with which the FHYA is concerned may exist in places in the Indian Ocean world that have a history of contact with southern Africa that predates European colonialism. Since that contact was never extensive, but was nonetheless significant where it did occur, such items if they exist, might be productively mobilized as archive. Equally, there are numerous diasporic communities who inhabited the southern African region with which we are concerned in the periods before European colonialism, who have subsequently left the region, and who yet retain forms of knowledge about those periods. In this respect, the FHYA through its existence online hopes to act as an elicitation device, directed not only at the Indian Ocean world, but other settings that are not part of the historically dominant collection and preservation axes.

As briefly explained above, the FHYA project aims to bring into a single searchable framework a variety of textual, visual and sonic materials, which are pertinent to the remote past in southern Africa but currently dispersed across various institutions, often inappropriately catalogued and difficult to gain access to. The exemplar will provide as much relevant information as possible with regard to the materials’ production, use, meaning, provenance and existence over time, and will encourage contributions from professional  and non-professional custodians, historians and researchers for an initial, limited period of six months, always marking the source of such contributions.

The FHYA is an intervention with a limited three-year funding period, following which it will be offered as a model for a national/regional resource. It is designed with the aim of being easy to add to, such that similar teams working on other parts of the southern African region could undertake the same exercise and upload archival material pertinent to their area into the shared exemplar, thus eventually offering archival coverage for the entire region in a continuous, mutually searchable format. Likewise, an institution or individual with a single item would be able to add it to the archive.

As the FHYA does not seek to own digital resources in its own right it aims for maximum compatibility with other platforms. These include the South African Heritage Resources Information System (SAHRIS), which covers heritage site case management and is integrated within the National Inventory of Heritage Sites and Objects, and ICA Atom, the international archival standard open-source1 platform used by WITS Historical Papers and to be incorporated by the South African National Archives. Once we have developed the exemplar exemplar, we will promote it actively to the various bodies with responsibilities in this area such as the National Research Foundation (NRF), SAHRIS and the National Archives.

The FHYA aims to design the exemplar in such a way that it can effectively be used and contributed to by academic and non-professional investigators with a wide range of research expectations, levels of expertise and digital skills.

Project Phase One (July 2013 – June 2014)

The initial phase of the project (July 2013 – June 2014), with a pre-preparation phase (February 2013 – June 2013), was dedicated to processes of consultation and planning with the proposed partner institutions including 16 representatives of five local institutional collections, namely Wits Historical Papers; Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG); KwaZulu-Natal Museum (KZNM); Killie Campbell Africana Library (KCAL) and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) Press. It included inputs on materials from the Berlin Phonogram Archive, the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) and the collections of the Mariannhill Mission.

What emerged in the initial phase of the project was the large variety of cultural policies, mandates, constituencies and cultural custodians within South Africa and internationally, reflected in a lack of standardisation of archival materials across institutions. This includes a number of proprietary and open-source platforms and content management systems such as SAHRIS, DSpace, Fedora, MS Access and Star. Discussions with partners during the initial phase of the project sought to engage with the particular concerns and needs of each individual institution.

Initial Conceptualisation of the Online Exemplar

The exemplar does not aim to be an online archive. It aims to draw scattered materials into archival view, to contextualise them as fully as possible and, in doing so, to make an argument about their  archival potential. Thus, the FHYA plans to hold no archival materials in perpetuity but to perform an elicitation and showcasing function.

It will draw in new materials and invest archival potential into items historically denied that potential. The exemplar is being designed as a carefully framed and readily searchable website that will allow researchers to locate materials in  the partner institutions. A key intervention will be the use of maximum searchable text as entry points to what is often otherwise unsearchable material, constrained by its current labels and accession records.  

The proposed exemplar is pioneering in that it will combine the holdings of several entities, searchable through one access point. For instance, a preliminary level search using one of the isibongo (or clan names) prominent in the region could include, on one results page, objects from an ethnological  Mayr collection at the KZNM, archaeological remains from the KZNM, objects from the Johannesburg Art Gallery collection, textual references from the Killie Campbell Africana Library and from the voluminous 1929 publication by A.T. Bryant, related audio material, and the izithakazelo (clan praise names) of the people concerned, contributed to the site by themselves. The latter participants would be offered the kind of support that is being extended to the partner institutions, similarly tailored to their particular needs.

It is anticipated that the FHYA, in collaboration with institutional partners, will enter controlled metadata, developed in conjunction with the project team. During this period we would also use web metrics to understand the behaviour of exemplar users to help us refine the exemplar's functionality.

Challenges and Opportunities

Partner institutions have made it clear that much of their material is not digitised, and that, in certain instances, inventories are thin, equipment is lacking or non-existent and staff are not trained or available to assist with the digitisation process. Through discussion with individual partner institutions we feel that we have developed a good understanding of specific institutional needs, and aim to address them by working collaboratively with each institution in a manner that takes account of its particular circumstances.

The FYHA has further attempted to ensure that the project benefits the partner institutions in their own core business. It offers the institutions opportunities to gain enhanced experience in the handling of archival objects across various media. It is anticipated that the digitised materials and the project’s online infrastructure will facilitate in-depth research, inter-institutional dialogue and knowledge-sharing, as well as stimulate interest in respective institutions’ collections through increased access and public engagement. Within institutions it is likely that the FHYA project will, by its very existence, stimulate interest in the neglected area of the remote past, leading to the prioritisation of relevant inventories, and will lead to training and expertise development opportunities.  It is further likely that participation in the FHYA project will directly expand the available information about specific collections.

Broadly, the project offers partner institutions the following support:

  • In certain instances digitisation of selected materials.
  • Help in precipitating and endorsing institutional fund-raising efforts to digitise other materials.
  • Increasing the use of specific collections through web access and monitoring (through web metrics) the effects of this access.
  • Using the occasion of the digitisation process to enhance digital skills within the institution. (In some case the FHYA will benefit from the skills already present in a partner institution and will seek to export them to the other partners.)
  • In each case, identifying a mode of digitisation for the selected items that benefits or intersects with the institutional discussion of digitisation and that includes, inter alia, mentoring of, or partnering with, local staff members and building staff members’ expert knowledge for this region and period. (In some cases the FHYA will benefit from the expertise already present in a partner institution and will seek to export it to the other partners.)
  • Researching and promoting approaches to, and uses of, materials in ways that encourage deeper archival management, strengthen institutional capacity and facilitate new ways to engage with archival objects, collections and their contexts of production.

The Way Forward

We are currently designing and testing the exemplar, following which we will solicit feedback from the parties involved, revise and then present, and actively promote, the exemplar.

Funding and Project Infrastructure

The Five Hundred Year Archive has received the support of an independent South African government agency, the National Research Foundation (NRF), through its African Origins Platform, and is further supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. In addition, the project has infrastructural and developmental support from the host institution, the University of Cape Town.  

The FHYA project team has had input from a number of people including: Prof. Carolyn Hamilton; Dr Grant McNulty; Dr Mbongiseni Buthelezi; Dr June Bam-Hutchison; Prof. John Wright; George Mahashe; Prof. Simon Hall; Dr Anette Hoffmann; Nessa Leibhammer; Jo-Anne Duggan, Debra Pryor, Chloe Ruschovich and Prof. Chris Saunders, amongst others. 

1Open-source denotes software for which the original source code is made freely available and may be redistributed and modified. It is very often developed in a public, collaborative manner.