The 500 Year Archive

A test version of the 500 Year Archive (500YA) is now available online for public use. The 500YA is a multi-institutional, cross-disciplinary digital project. It focuses on bringing together materials that are relevant to the southern African past before European colonialism, often referred to as precolonial history. The project aims to stimulate and support research and creative work, public knowledge of, and interest in, these periods, which are currently the most neglected in our knowledge and understanding of the southern African past.  

Materials from diverse settings

The 500YA does this by making digitised materials – the originals of which are dispersed, mis-labelled and often stuck in institutions locally and internationally – available online, so that they can be used as sources. The idea is that these materials are not only for academic researchers to use but for artists, community historians, designers and other interested parties. Registered users can also contribute their own materials and make commentary on existing ones.

The materials are relevant to a small region (the southern Swaziland-KwaZulu-Natal region) in a limited time period (the late independent period, from about 1750 to various points in the late nineteenth century), drawn from diverse collection settings and covering a large range of disciplines (archaeology, botany, ethnology, history).

Using a cross-institution, cross-medium, cross-disciplinary approach, the 500YA has located and made available sound recordings, images, maps, texts and botanical materials that can tell us about the southern African past before Europeans arrived. Making these diverse forms of materials available in one setting, the 500YA reframes the materials, releasing them from their colonial framing and categorisations, and allowing users of the digital platform to engage with them in new ways.

Screenshot of the front page of the 500 Year Archive digital platform

Project partners

The 500YA displays materials from a number of partner institutions, from different disciplines and geographic locations. The current partners, all of which hold materials that can tell us about the remote southern African past, include:

Watch this space…

The 500YA is one of the digital components of the Archive and Public Culture’s Five Hundred Year Archive project (FHYA). The larger FHYA project has a range of other initiatives, as well as other digital tools that it is designing and testing. EMANDULO – an archive for the remote past like the 500YA – is one such initiative. It challenges Euro-American assumptions that are built into current open-source archival software and provides an alternative, homegrown open-source software that uses little resources, is cost effective, easy to manage and sustainable.  EMANDULO also offers a platform for showcasing contemporary curatorial projects that engage with the remote southern African past. Watch this space…