What we do

The Five Hundred Year Archive

The Five Hundred Year Archive (FHYA) is project of the NRF Chair in Archive and Public Culture, based in the History Department, University of Cape Town (UCT). Its aim is 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 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 those not working within the specialized field to gain access to. Some of it is in circulation in family and community life. 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 materials, places them in archival frameworks that make their origins clear, augments the frameworks in ways that go beyond what is typical for archives, and then makes them accessible online. The FHYA further adds facilities for others to contribute materials to the project.

This site - the 500 Year Archive - uses dedicated open-source archival software, AtoM (Access to Memory), a framework that has been developed in conjunction with the International Council on Archives. The software is freely available for anyone to use and has a global community of users and developers. However, the FHYA project team found that the software had certain limitations for a southern African context and when confronted with the challenges of tracking the colonial and subsequent eras' production of sources for periods before colonialism. Notably, it lacked the functionality to facilitate dialogue on materials that are pertinent to the periods before European colonialism. FHYA software customisations enable users to register accounts, which allow them to comment on existing materials and upload contributions. The FHYA has a second framework - EMANDULO - in development, in collaboration with library systems specialist Professor Hussein Suleman from the Department of Computer Science at UCT.

"Five Hundred Year Archive"
The project name, "The Five Hundred Year Archive (FHYA)," and the name of this site, the 500 Year Archive, pointedly replaces a long-standing apartheid-era focus on five hundred years of European presence (instantiated in CFJ Muller's 1968 book, 500 Jaar Suid-Afrikaanse Geskeidenis , Academica Press, Pretoria and Cape Town), with a focus on the five hundred years before European colonialism. It echoes the title of, but is distinct from, the 2008 book, 500 Years Rediscovered: Southern African Precedents and Prospects (Johannesburg, Wits University Press, edited by N. Swanepoel, A. Esterhuysen and P. Bonner). For the most part, the items on the exemplar are relevant to the most recent part of this period, from about 1750 onwards. But some of the items speak to earlier periods.

The exemplar seeks out material related to these five hundred years in a single area, roughly what is today KwaZulu-Natal where colonialism took root in the nineteenth century, as well as parts of the Eastern Cape, Lesotho and Swaziland. Regionally however, the five hundred years before colonialism applies to different periods in various places where colonialism was established at different times.

The importance of asserting that the archive exists
The creation of readily-accessible archival resources facilitates research into the five hundred-year period before colonialism. It is also an intervention in lobbying for further research infrastructure development designed to support research into the southern African past before European colonialism. But its significance is not limited to scholarly research.

It makes the claim in contemporary public and political life that the many eras of the southern Africa past before European colonialism are worth investigating and reinvestigating, in perpetuity. Holding the necessary materials for that investigation in a space publicly proclaimed as an archive - seizing the status of archive and demanding for its materials the elaborate apparatus of preservation and availability - is a public assertion of the worth and value of that history.

The FHYA as an exemplar
The FHYA, in its present exemplar form, does not strive to be an archive that will exist in perpetuity in its own right. Rather, the current purpose is the development of a sample or prototype designed to show what is possible. It is positioned to act as an advocate for the establishment of a substantial archive relevant to a period long deemed “archiveless”.

The exemplar seeks to be a conceptually-innovative intervention geared to work across geographic and disciplinary boundaries, across multiple institutions and to incorporate a variety of media formats such as digital images, text and audio. It further aims to do this in a manner that makes as visible as possible the processes across time of the construction of archives and the constitution of evidence.

For the purposes of the exemplar, the FHYA selected a limited number of bodies of material pertinent to a small region. The regional focus deliberately exceeds the boundaries of modern South Africa to underscore the lack of relevance of national borders in the period with which the FHYA is concerned, and to engage the complexity of establishing an archive today for a past that is not coterminous with modem political boundaries. The exemplar deliberately draws 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, music, oral memory and vernacular publications). The different bodies of material were each 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 an archive for this period. The full range of problems which the FHYA addresses is discussed in a separate a research paper. [forthcoming]

Thus, the FHYA project attempts to deal with the maximum complexity using the exemplar as an opportunity to identify the problems involved and, in the form of a sample project, to address them.

The temporal range of the FHYA
The concept of archive that was exported from Europe to colonies in southern Africa in the nineteenth century placed an emphasis on archives as repositories of documents produced at a particular time that speak directly to the developments of that time, i.e. documents as the records of the time to which they attest. The prime example were the records of the European colonial bureaucracies. Of course, in many instances, colonial bureaucrats collected information about earlier times, and incorporated this into their reports. Their reports speak to the events of the time when the reports were written, notably in revealing much about why the reports were written and why they took a particular form. But they also offer material about the earlier periods which they discuss, mediated through the concerns of the report writers in a later era.

While the bulk of the items on the FHYA are relevant to the late independent period, some items reference much earlier periods, while others date from subsequent periods. For example, certain recorded oral accounts refer to events much earlier in time in order to explain things about the late independent period. Formal colonialism, in turn, occurred at different times across the region. However, while formal colonialism was a distinct moment of political change, many aspects of life in the immediately pre-colonial era continued unchanged, or little changed for extended periods under colonialism, with change occurring unevenly across the region. The FHYA attempts to present its materials in a manner that makes it possible for users to engage this complex temporal situation.

Some of the items included in the FHYA were originally produced in the eras before European colonialism. These include items excavated by archaeologists, objects made before the colonial era which may have been collected either before colonisation or later in time, and texts written before the colonial era. Other items were produced later in time and refer back to earlier eras, sometimes drawing on older materials or memory. The FHYA seeks to make as visible as possible the circumstances, and the period, of the production of all the materials concerned.

For the most part, late independent-era objects depend on word-based material recorded in colonial or later times for elucidation. Archaeologists, for example, often rely on twentieth-century ethnographies to interpret excavated material from much earlier centuries. By including large collections of recorded oral materials, whether in transcribed or audio format, the FHYA makes available and accessible another kind of word-based elucidatory material, often recorded closer in time to the events to which they refer than the ethnographies, and in words and conceptual frameworks used by local Africans, rather than researchers working in the disciplinary frameworks of their time. In addition, the FHYA makes available a wide range of early vernacular publications by African authors. These bodies of recorded oral material and publications are vital to the interpretation of the older artefacts, while the older artefacts from the eras before colonialism, are crucial anchor materials in gauging the kinds of changes over time to which materials recorded later have been subject. This combination of discursive and material items is a core methodological strength of the FHYA.

Calling the exemplar - an exercise in reproducing items in a mediated digital format - an "archive" deliberately untethers the term "archive" from a notion of comprising unmediated originals. The items on the 500 Year Archive are mediated in a variety of obvious ways: by their presentation in digital form and in the way they are framed by the FHYA. But so too are the items in their "home" repositories mediated by how they are framed in those institutions, and by how they changed over time through curatorial interventions. The untethering serves to remind us that all archives are mediated. In every case, whether consulting items in the home repository or online the users of the materials need to pay attention to the full spectrum of mediations, as well as how they change over time, in the process sometimes changing the items themselves. This in turn raises the question of how these changing mediations affect interpretations of the materials.

The exemplar is not a repository and its digital items are in many ways quite different from the items they represent. Nonetheless, the exemplar places digital items in the kind of archival framework that readies them for use in thinking about the remote past. It also augments, and goes beyond, an archival framework, becoming in the process, post-archival. Each of these moves involves a form of framing of the items concerned.

Why an archival framework?
Archives are organised according to the principle of respect des fonds. This principle involves grouping items according to the individual by whom, or the entity by which, they were created, or from whence they were received. This places the emphasis on who made the items, in what context and when, on who collected them, how they were collected, in what context and when, and the circumstances of deposit.

Because the African societies of the region were for a long time thought of as having no history, collected items linked to those societies were, for the most part, chosen by and organized in institutions as broadly representative examples, or specimens, of “timeless traditional culture”. They were typically classified in terms of tribal, and, later, ethnic, categories. These items are thus hard to use as historical sources. Often there are no readily accessible details of the original makers, or the place of creation and manufacture, and many lack information about how they came to be collected. A clear example of this is the vast swathe of materials in many institutions that are generically, and often incorrectly, labelled “Zulu” with little other information about them, such as when they were made, under what conditions and by whom.

In resituating items of that kind in an archival framework, the FHYA creates the space for the accumulation of information about makers, collectors, deposits and contexts. Wherever possible the FHYA fills that space or enables others to fill it, in each case carefully retaining the signature of those who do the filling. In this way items that have long been marooned without context become available as potential historical sources.

The respect des fonds approach is important for another reason: it is an essential first step in any attempt to understand how dominant knowledge practices lead to some things being valued and saved for posterity and not others.

Archival systems do not present archival items in an overtly accessible fashion. They oblige the user to grapple with the way in which the item has come into the repository and with its positioning in the system. This makes a substantial call on the user who cannot simply go online and readily obtain a fact or two. Instead, the user must learn to use the system and understand something of the history of the archival item. In the case of the 500 Year Archive, the FHYA has made a strategic decision to operationalise the full apparatus that contextualises any single archival item, because that apparatus is often critical to the interpretation of the item. In the EMANDULO iteration currently in development, the FHYA is seeking to retain a respect de fonds approach and to modify the interface so that it is easier to use.

Going beyond a conventional archival framework
The FHYA also goes beyond a conventional archival framework and its ambition of preserving things unchanged. It does this by making as transparent as possible the many ways in which the items concerned have, over time, been framed and reframed, shaped and reshaped by many past curatorial interventions, as well as by the interventions of the FHYA itself. It does this in order to show how changing knowledge practices, disciplinary practices, political and public discourses, funding availability, new discoveries and a host of other factors affect that framing and shaping.

The FHYA takes the position that labels, accession records, catalogues, finding aids, classification systems, and indeed metadata itself, cannot be regarded as the neutral apparatus of knowledge production. They are themselves cultural objects reflective of their own times and settings, and they too are subject to reframing and reshaping over time. The FHYA presents such items of disciplinary, museum and archive practice as archival items in their own right, open to enquiry and research, like the very things they frame. The FHYA makes these items searchable in the same way as the collected items to which they refer.

The FHYA further deviates from a typical archival system by incorporating a function for contributions from members of the public. Contributors are identified by their chosen user name, and the date of the intervention. Each contribution is clearly marked as a public contribution. Contributors can comment on the material that the FHYA has placed on-line or can upload additional information in a variety of forms, anything from links to other websites (such as plethora of family and clan websites which record inherited clan address names and other historical materials), individual photos or whole collections, films and academic theses, to whole books which contributors may have the rights to upload, or which might be outside copyright limitations. Where researchers have examined the reframing of items over time, constructed biographies of the items, or found related materials, these too can be uploaded onto the site. Users can upload any digital archival items that they have the rights to and wish to make publicly available. This provides an opportunity for researchers to make their research data readily accessible, subject to the obtaining of the necessary permissions. On the 500 Year Archive, the FHYA does not vet or arrange this material and indicates that it does not attempt to assess its accuracy or value. It reserves the right to remove anything deemed to be racist, homophobic, sexist or otherwise offensive. The FHYA makes these public uploads searchable in the same way as the core archival items and their associated labels, accession records, and other institutional apparatuses.

Working Digitally
The FHYA intervention takes the form of a digital archival exemplar. The use of digital technology allows the FHYA to bring together institutionally separated 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 widespread 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, vernacular novels and praise poetry, as well as research papers and information about the exhibition of brass items.

The use of digital technology also 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. The framing of these materials that takes place on the 500 Year Archive may be different from the way that the holding institution presents the materials (though the FHYA always also includes the institution's own information) and may challenge the holding institution to rethink its own framing. In some instances, the FHYA provides missing information that the holding institution can use. In other instances, the FHYA's profiling of elements of an international institution's holdings draws attention to the items value and significance, leading the institution to treat them differently, and in some instances, to consider cases for repatriation.

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 500 Year Archive as an online index that helps them find materials that they may need to consult for themselves 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 and to enable optimal functioning of the exemplar.

Maximum Searchability
The 500 Year Archive operates with a principle of enabling the maximum searchability of all of the content on the site. It uses an electronic search function to go beyond the limits of manually-constructed indexes and finding aids, which both helpfully and unhelpfully, are a product of what their makers consider to be important.

The 500 Year Archive includes audio recordings, visual media and digital images of things. It also includes digital images of handwritten pages. Unlike typescripts, these items cannot be directly searched using an electronic search function and optical character recognition. Conventional archival practice is to rely on the metadata to signal their content.

The 500 Year Archive makes use of a variety of "other" text-based resources, constructed for purposes other than being finding aids, to provide pointers to the content of non-searchable items. This is an additional strategy for getting beyond what the makers of metadata consider significant. In the case of one of the audio collections, the "other" text-based resource is a series of typescripts of edited translated audio prepared for a possible publication and later discarded as not appropriate for publication. The typescripts, regardless of any inherent limitations, function by virtue of their searchability, as an inadvertent index to the audio, over and above the formal finding aid. In that case, the FHYA team was also responsible for the creation of the repository's finding aid itself as only a rudimentary one had previously existed. In another case, six volumes of published, edited, annotated, and translated text - valuable resources in their own right - act as a finding aid to the handwritten versions on which the published text is based. In the case of archaeological collections, site reports and published articles act as informal finding aids to weakly-described boxed materials in repositories. In these cases, the improvised indexes in no way purport to be neutral reflections of content. But they turn out to be helpful tools for searching the archive.

The AtoM software which the FHYA uses has a particular algorithm for searching and weighting its search results. The algorithm plays an important role in drawing users’ attention to certain items ahead of others and bears close attention.

When someone deploys a search term, for example, 'brass', there are various factors that contribute to why some items will appear higher (first) in the search results than others. This is mainly due to where a particular search term appears in the AtoM's records, notably in its descriptive metadata fields. If, for example, the term 'brass' is found in the Title field (to which AtoM gives a 10 x weighting) it would be would ranked higher in search results, than if the term appears in the Scope and Content field (with a 5 x weighting). This weighting system is also cumulative: if the term appears in both the Title (10 x weighting) and Scope and Content (5 x weighting) it would be given a combined weight of 15. The record would be considered of greater relevance than one with a lower weight and would be boosted and appear prominently in the search results. Searchable textual items (like searchable PDFs) are not boosted (i.e. not given a relevancy weighting) but do still appear in the search results.

The frequency of appearance of the term is also a factor, although this is more complex. If a term appears many times in the entire database, the frequency value loses relevance in the working of the algorithm because it is too common a term.

The current weightings for the different AtoM metadata fields are as follows:
10 x Weight: Title
6 x Weight: Creator
5 x Weight: Identifier, Subject Access Point, Scope and Content
3 x Weight: Name Access Point, Place Access Point

The 500 Year Archive customization offers an additional useful highlight feature (in yellow) which allows the user to easily spot the searched term in a large body of text.

Creative Commons Licensing
Participating institutions agree to release their materials on the 500 Year Archive site under a CC BY-NC-ND license. Contributions by members of the public who have registered accounts are asked by the FHYA to ensure that the contributions are either old enough to be out of copyright or that they have the necessary permissions to upload material and for it to be made available on the 500 Year Archive under the CC BY-NC-ND license.

Partner Institutions
The FHYA project has worked with a number of external repositories so as to make the exemplar responsive to a wide range of institutional concerns. The institutions are the Wits University Historical Papers, the Johannesburg Art Gallery, the KwaZulu-Natal Museum, the Amafa/Heritage KwaZulu Natali - provincial heritage conservation agency, the Swaziland National Archives, the Killie Campbell Africana Library, the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the Austrian Academy of Sciences, the Bews Herbarium at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the Cambridge University Library.

Initial funding for the FHYA project came from the National Research Foundation, through its African Origins Platform. The FHYA has also been supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.