Esther B. Van Deman was born on a farm in South Salem, Ohio. She earned her bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Michigan, and was the first woman to obtain a Ph.D. in Latin at the University of Chicago in 1898. She taught Latin at Wellesley College and Mount Holyoke College, and Latin and classical archaeology at Goucher College. From 1906 to 1910, she lived in Rome as a Carnegie Institution fellow, and from 1910 to 1925 she was an associate of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C. Between 1925 and 1930, she taught Roman archaeology at the University of Michigan. She was the first woman to specialize in field analysis of building materials at ancient sites. In 1907, while attending a lecture in the Atrium Vestae in Rome, she noticed that the bricks blocking up a doorway differed from those of the structure itself, and showed that such differences in building materials provided a key to the chronology of ancient structures. The Carnegie Institution published her preliminary findings in The Atrium Vestae (1909). She also wrote Methods of Determining the Date of Roman Concrete Monuments, published in The American Journal of Archaeology in 1912. Her basic criteria became the standard procedure for dating Roman archaeology. Her magnum opus, written after she had retired, was The Building of the Roman Aqueducts (1934). Her final work was completed after her death by Dr. Marion Elizabeth Blake and published as Ancient Roman Construction in Italy from the Prehistoric Period to Augustus (1947).